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Last Updated: Friday, 15 September 2006, 12:31 GMT 13:31 UK
Battle of the conference blogs
Analysis
By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

Everywhere you look at political party conferences you see people hunched over lap top computers or speaking in staccato sentences into mobile phones.

Lap top
Bloggers will be out in force over the next three weeks

The annual shindigs attract hundreds, maybe even thousands, of reporters from all over the world - and they are generally in an almighty hurry to file their copy.

But this year they face more competition than ever from an army of unpaid correspondents, just as eager to be first with the news or the latest gossip from the bars and hotel lobbies.

And the three main parties are falling over themselves to woo this new breed of political blogger, offering computer facilities, background briefings and even access to big name politicians.

For Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats it is not just about appearing to be on top of the latest media trend - or showing how open to debate and criticism they are.

Maverick voice

It is about getting a toe-hold in a medium which has been growing in influence at Westminster.

Tony Blair
This year's Labour conference will be Tony Blair's last

Far better, the thinking goes, to have a sympathetic blogger telling the world what you are up to than an off-message maverick internet voice, or a journalist writing for a newspaper which might have its own agenda.

There are also those who feel their views get a raw deal from the mainstream broadcasters such as the BBC and ITN.

"The right wing have felt the need to take on the mainstream media more," argues Tim Montgomerie, who runs the Conservative Home website.

"That's why the Conservative movement has, I think, been stronger at using the internet."

Conservative Home - which sees itself as a "critical friend" of the party - has ambitious plans for this year's Tory conference.

It has recruited 30 unpaid correspondents to provide a rival news service to the broadcasters and print media.

'Alternative'

The team includes MPs, such as Theresa May and Douglas Carswell, prospective parliamentary candidates, including members of David Cameron's fabled "A-list", local party activists and a handful of "armchair correspondents" who will be following events from home.

Theresa May
Theresa May will be sharing her view of conference life

"Some will be very supportive of the party's position on issues. Others have been chosen to represent wings of the Conservative Party that feel neglected by Team Cameron," the site explains.

The plan is to cover every aspect of the conference experience - including the media's coverage of it.

"We will have people blogging the Six O' Clock News. We want to provide an online alternative to the mainstream coverage," he told the BBC News website.

"Traditionally, a lot of people come home from conference saying they felt they were at a different event to the media."

The Conservative Party also plans to set up a "blogging area" in Bournemouth, to encourage others to have a go.

The Liberal Democrats also have plans to open up their conference to bloggers.

'Important'

Campaigns chief, Ed Davey, says: "We are an open, democratic party. Blogging is something Liberal Democrats feel very comfortable with."

Blogging is something Liberal Democrats feel very comfortable with
Ed Davey, Liberal Democrats

It is not, he claims, an activity that comes naturally to the "control freaks" of Labour.

"I could not imagine Gordon Brown as a natural blogger," he adds.

The party will be announcing the winner of the Lib Dem "blog of the year" contest at a special reception on Sunday, as its party conference gets underway in Brighton.

All six finalists being given conference accreditation, facilities and regular briefings from the party's media operation.

"We think blogging is incredibly important. I am not going to say it is more important than getting on the Today programme or Newsnight - but we do take it seriously," says Mr Davey.

The party said its blog awards were initially going to be a private event - prompting accusations of "control freakery" from widely-read Conservative blogger Iain Dale.

A Lib Dem spokesman said the event would now be open to journalists "in response to increased media interest".

On-message

The Labour Party, meanwhile, has been stung by criticism that its "control freak" instincts run counter to the spirit of the blogosphere.

We want to create a space for dialogue and debate
Labour Party

Environment secretary David Miliband's blog has come in for criticism over its relentlessly on-message style.

The party ran a contest for an "official" conference blogger. The winner, Jonathan Roberts, of Thirsk and Marston Labour Party, will be sharing his impressions of his first party conference with an online audience.

But Mr Roberts' site has been attacked by the blogging community for not allowing readers to add their own comments - proof positive, say critics, of Labour's desire to stifle debate.

A Labour spokesman said Mr Roberts' site would be modified to include readers' comments in time for its conference in Manchester in a week's time.

Abuse

Labour says it is planning a series of announcements in Manchester about how it plans to improve its use of the web to open up policy debate to local activists.

It will also launch a dedicated conference website, with a section for activists to post video clips and messages.

It is not worried by criticism or even a bit of abuse, a Labour spokesman insists.

Alastair Campbell's World Cup blog was deluged with vitriolic comments within minutes of going live and some of them were, says the Labour spokesman, very funny.

"Alastair had a laugh about it," he adds.

'Control'

The party would draw the line at personal abuse or obscenity but otherwise, he insists, anything goes - although, he adds, it sees blogs as a means of encouraging serious policy debate rather than a tool for spreading Westminster gossip.

"We want to create a space for dialogue and debate. We are absolutely confident that Labour values can win that debate."

But can a party-endorsed blog, of whatever persuasion, ever compete for openness and interest with an independent voice?

And by providing access and facilities to bloggers, are the parties merely attempting to co-opt and neutralise potential critics?

"They are trying to draw it close to their chests and keep control," says Tim Ireland, who runs the long-established Bloggerheads site.

"What the parties should be doing is trying to educate their MPs and activists about blogging."

The big question is: If the bloggers at this year's party conferences stray too far off-message will they be invited back?




SEE ALSO
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