In a world where any Tom, Dick or Harriet can write a blog and post it online, it can seem almost impossible to discern what to read and what to avoid. But Radio Four presenter Justin Webb believes it is worth persevering. He suggests that blogs can cajole, persuade, inform, charm and even seduce the reader. And he provides a handy guide to finding the good ones and avoiding the poorly-written, blatantly sycophantic or just plain boring.
“Write a blog,” they said. “You can say anything you like.”
The year was 2006 – I was the BBC’s North America editor and the corporation was keen to see its on-air people getting online as well. This was a chance to jump from ruthlessly impartial pieces for the News at Ten into the deep end. Opinion. Argument. Controversy.
Of course, it was doomed from the start. My proudest blog entry was a one-word response to John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his presidential running mate. “Eagleton,” it read. And if you clicked on the link, it went to the Wikipedia entry for Thomas Eagleton, a disastrous, unstable and short-lived choice of running mate for George McGovern back in 1972.
Ah, what a piece of fun. You couldn’t have said that on the Today programme. But it was never going to last. BBC bosses soon began to row back from the “say anything you like” approach to something safer and more objective. And the blog had to be overseen by a grown-up, which was wise but killed the creative juices.
So my blog is no more. For BBC folk, tweeting is the thing now. And I have heard it argued that the world of instant messaging has made the humble blog look as ponderous and archaic as a quill pen and papyrus.
But, in an age where blogging could have gone the way of Betamax, it still exists and fulfils a need. And I believe it’s here to stay.
More to say
In the best blogs, logical argument can be set out and tested. Thoughts can be explored. The blogger has room to breathe, cajole, persuade, inform, charm, even seduce. This is what good writing has always done. And this is why everyone from CEOs to schoolkids can benefit from blogging. It reveals you. Can you really employ convincing arguments? Are you a narcissist nitwit or a pellucid truth-seeker? Is your tone hectoring and lumpen or thoughtful and engaging?
Nowhere is this more evident than in the debate about Britain’s role in Europe and the future of the EU. The quality of on-air debate on this subject has been patchy at best. Ditto Twitter. But blogs, by think tanks, universities, economists and lawyers, make a real contribution to the debate. You could call it the fightback of the experts.
Of course, there is a wheat and chaff problem here. Plenty of verbiage is best avoided. So what is a blog reader to do? First, don’t bother with corporate blogs written by junior people to please senior people in the same company. And don’t allow your inbox to be filled with junk from dullards pushing a party line.
Take it slowly. Build from one blogger to another that he or she recommends. It’s a voyage of discovery, but like the best voyages it should not be rushed. My own approach was to start with university blogs, such as the London School of Economics’, and move on from there.
The truth is that communication in sensible paragraphs is far from dead: in fact it is more necessary than ever. John Major used to tell a story about chatting to Boris Yeltsin. He asked the then Russian president: “In a word, what is the state of your country?”
“Good,” said Yeltsin.
Major knew this was false. So he tried again:
“What is the longer version of that, Boris?”
Yeltsin, as quick as a flash, replied: “Not good!”
In other words, the reduction of argument and conversation to sound bites and the written equivalent is damaging to our real understanding of the world. Bloggers – at least the best of them – are part of our collective fightback against the blather of single-line messages. Let’s write them, read them, enjoy them and share them. Good blogging, like any form of good communication, works ■