Oh dear. That description above is the [abbreviated] one applied by the BBCs Andrew Marr to bloggers, and all I can say in response is that I'm not pimpled. Actually, Marr described bloggers as "socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting." I don't think he likes us, but when you take away the range of adjectival epithets he applies to us, at heart is an issue about online debate, and just how helpful it is, or indeed how informed. Whether anyone likes it - even an anyone as esteemed as Andrew Marr - is irrelevant, since it is certainly here to stay.
The quality of online debate is undoubtedly variable, and Marr's point that too much of it is simply angry and abusive can be verified from a look at any one of hundreds of political blogs and, even more, the comments attending most of their posts. Marr's successor as political editor of the BBC, Nick Robinson, has also gone on record to suggest that new media comment fails in the crucial area of reflectivity. It simply provides a new forum for uninformed, knee-jerk reactions, few of which genuinely widen the scope of our political knowledge.
I have some sympathy with the view of the two beeb people, despite my own incursion into this much abused field. But they miss the fact that online political engagement is crucial in enlarging the sphere of both political activists and interested observers in a way that remains important to the health of a liberal democracy. Sometimes, the 'blogosphere' can have an impact. The most prominent of the political blogs is probably that of the pseudonymous Guido Fawkes, and while I detest his witch-hunt against former Hague adviser Chris Myers, there is no doubting that he has a right to question how public money is being spent or to raise up issues of hypocrisy (as with his current campaign to reveal how many shadow cabinet members are millionaires) or pose awkward questions to newly elevated MPs like Ed Miliband's campaign manager, and now shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan. Other blogs, such as those run by politics lecturer Bill Jones (Skipper), or former lobby correspondent Paul Linford, clearly provide the informed comment of seasoned political observers, comment that is every bit as acute as that available from print or broadcast journalists.
The problem with the blogosphere is, however, not just that it can be seen as hysterical and vindictive (and in that respect hardly any different from the tabloid press), but that it can also take itself too seriously. The recent election for the chairmanship of the Conservative Party youth organisation Conservative Future drew a flurry of online activity that kept officials at Conservative Central Office engaged for many, many man hours. The online debate about the election was described to me as vehement, malicious, even slanderous at times. And the net result of all this online hot air? A mere 200 votes cast, out of a putative membership of 18,000. On a larger canvas, the Political Studies Association's magazine 'Political Insight' carried an article putting the online political sphere in its place, when it looked at the internet election that never was. The authors note that despite the huge sums devoted to digital engagement, very few votes were shifted as a result. The Tories' more traditional telephone canvassing effort proved far more significant, at a fraction of the cost, while Jack Straw's Blackburn campaign, devoid of digital engagement but very firmly focused on local activity, saw his vote increase by 5.7%.
Andrew Marr may be sounding a little too defensive, as a well known broadcast journalist whose own private life was exposed on the internet not long ago. He raises some legitimate points, but he is ironically in danger of over-stating the impact of the internet, whilst ignoring the areas where it is a healthy complement to the existing media.