Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 17 March 2006
The big media news in my world this week wasn’t the white paper on the future of the BBC but the launch by the Guardian of its group blog, Comment is Free, where writers from the paper’s comment pages and assorted others sound off about whatever takes their (or the blog editor’s) fancy.
Comment is Free is a novel idea that shows yet again how seriously the Guardian takes online. The paper has been a consistent pioneer in web publishing. It was one of the first newspapers to go online and its website, Guardian Unlimited, has for several years been one of the biggest, best and most visited newspaper websites in the world.
Unlike many of its rivals, it carries everything from the print edition of the paper for free, and it doesn’t limit access to a few days. Guardian Unlimited was a pioneer in offering email alerts and text message services to readers and one of the first newspaper websites to experiment with blogging.
But Comment is Free – it gets its name from the dictum of C. P. Scott, editor of the Guardian from 1871 to 1929, that “comment is free but facts are sacred” – is a big step into the unknown. For the first time, a newspaper has gone for the current affairs bloggers’ natural territory, the instant publication of opinion on events as they happen. Here I should declare a couple of small interests. I work on the Guardian comment pages as a sub-editor and have no desire to lose the gig – and I have a blog of my own, Gauche, at www.libsoc.blogspot.com.
The Guardian has several big advantages over most current affairs bloggers. It has dozens of professional journalists who are paid to write on every topic under the sun. It has a team of sub-editors to correct their factual errors and stylistic infelicities. And it can pay freelance contributors – which makes commissioning easy.
But will it work? It is, of course, too early to tell. As I write, Comment is Free has been up and running a little more than 24 hours. My first impression is that it’s rather good – but that it doesn’t quite do what the best current affairs blogs do.
Most current affairs blogs are run by individuals or small groups with a bee (or several bees) in their bonnets. They are the work of enthusiasts who feel – rightly or wrongly – that their views are not getting a fair hearing in the mainstream press and on the airwaves. In Britain, for example, some of the best current affairs blogs have come from left-wingers at odds with the left consensus that it was wrong to topple Saddam Hussein: Normblog (normblog.typepad.com), Harry’s Place (hurryupharry.bloghouse.net), Oliver Kamm (oliverkamm.typepad.com).
Whether you agree with them or not, what makes them worth reading is precisely their iconoclasm, the fact that they are against the grain. The problem with Comment is Free is that the Guardian regulars who are the mainstay of the site, the columnists from the comment pages, are in this context not against the grain but the grain itself – and regular readers already have a pretty good idea of what they think about most of the key issues of the day. I’m not sure that reading them rehearsing their lines on the blog will become quite as addictive a habit as Harry’s Place or indeed the main Guardian Unlimited website. But we shall see.
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On a different matter entirely, for a couple of days this week it felt as if the “Who killed Princess Di?” conspiracy theorists had met their match at last in loons asking: “Who killed Slobbo?” Even the BBC joined in for several hours, its website’s lead story headlined “Milosevic poisoned, says doctor” and then “Mystery over Milosevic death”.
Yet the only evidence that the death of Slobodan Milosevic was in any way suspicious is the discovery in a blood sample of traces of an antibiotic, the effects of which would have been to counter those of the heart disease medication he had been prescribed. This is odd, but the most plausible explanation for it is not that Milosevic was done away with by the forces of imperialism (or whatever) but that he was administering the antibiotic to himself in an attempt to persuade the authorities in The Hague that the treatment he was receiving for heart disease wasn’t working and that he would have to be sent to Moscow for treatment. A younger, fitter man might just have got away with it – but Slobbo the 62-year-old lard-arse could not.
Whatever, Milosevic will be mourned by no one at Tribune. Thanks to Mark Thompson, who started filing from Yugoslavia long before anyone else took serious notice of what was happening there, this paper had a head start on the story when Milosevic sent the tanks rolling. We were the first paper to denounce the appeasement of Milosevic by the then Tory government (which was supported by the Labour front bench, to its shame) and the first to demand military intervention by the US and Britain to stop him.