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Making Orwell proud?

By Tom Colls
Today programme

George Orwell
George Orwell was interested in the new media of his day
Britain's most prestigious award for political writing has expanded to include blogs for the first time.

The power of the internet to shape politics - from Obama's campaign to online petitions - is widely recognised. But blogging has now become an intrinsic part of the political process.

That the Orwell Prize has extended its remit to include political blogs is a sign, for Charlie Beckett, director of the Polis think-tank, that the blogosphere has matured.

Two or three years ago, he says, bloggers were considered "outrageous scribblers and scurrilous rumour-mongers".

Now they have become a "fact of life" in the mainstream political debate.

"Clever people who wouldn't normally be part of the media world are finding their voice," he says.

"This is journalism as a voice, instead of journalism as the routine, identikit, repetitious stuff that fills most newspapers."

The ascent of active bloggers such as Iain Dale, he says, "dispels the myth of the pyjama-suited blogger, all on his own, bashing away at his keyboard".

Blogs have become an informal arena for testing public opinion, he says, sometimes finding support for issues disowned by the mainstream.

ORWELL PRIZE BLOG LONGLIST

When shadow home secretary David Davis resigned in order to fight for his seat on a platform of "British liberties", much of the mainstream was unimpressed, says Mr Beckett.

But from the blogosphere, support came from both the political right and left, forcing the mainstream to take his campaign seriously.

Blogged down

But, warns Shane Greer, executive editor of Total Politics magazine, blogs are not always works of art.

"You have to bear in mind that you have thousands and thousands of blogs of a very low quality," he says.

The simplicity of starting a blog and the unrestricted nature of the thoughts you might choose to pen means that it is sometimes hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.

He believes that the current blogosphere can be fitted into roughly four categories.

It is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a "party line"
George Orwell, Politics and the English Language
The first, big group are those blogs that are "truly awful". Second are the blogs such as Burning Our Money - which analyses in detail how taxes are spent - which are thoughtful and well written, but only of interest to a small, technically-minded community.

Then there are sites that cater for a more general audience, which operate more like the comment pages in newspapers, giving a forum for debate and finding the most interesting arguments from the more technical blogs.

Finally, there are the "attack blogs" such as Devil's Kitchen, which are out there to snap at the heels of everyone else and fight for a particular political view.

With so much competition for readers, the blogosphere can be a brutal environment. Just getting noticed is something that requires strategic planning, and a thick skin, according to Sunny Hundal, editor of left-wing blog Liberal Conspiracy.

He explains that because bloggers of certain political views tend to congregate around certain blogs, there can be an "echo chamber" effect which amplifies extreme views.

And that means online discussion can, at times, become "vitriolic".

Thermogram of a laptop computer
Laptops have become an influential tool in the political debate
While all this debate can be productive, and does affect the small political cliques formulating policy at Westminster, there is still a long way to go before blogs can claim mass appeal.

That will only happen, in Mr Hundal's view, when blogs become more about providing new journalism and less about discussion.

"As things stand, the blogosphere is not mature," he says.

"A few stories need to break out for people to take blogs more seriously as an alternative news source and not just a bunch of people shouting online."

But what would George Orwell himself have made of the modern political blogosphere?

"On the one hand he would have been interested in the democratic possibilities of it - anyone can do it as long as they've got access to a machine," says DJ Taylor, Orwell's biographer and chair of the Orwell Trust.

"On the other, the misuses to which blogging has been put certainly would have appalled him. There would, in all probability, have been an essay on Blogging and the English Language."

George Orwell was fascinated by the latest developments in culture and technology. But whether he would have been a blogger, DJ Taylor is unwilling to guess.

It is an imaginative leap too far, he says, from a time 60 years ago when "the biro was the latest thing in writing technology".

Charlie Beckett, from Polis, has no such qualms.

"He was a contrarian, he loved a row and he didn't mind people having a go at him," he says.

"George Orwell would have blogged. Fact."


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