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Pamphlet from 1646 

Pamphlets and tracts have been the mainstay of resistance by the common man to the repressions of the powerful since they first came about at the time of the invention of the printing press.  Cheap to produce, and with an authorship often anonymous or disguised, they fired every revolution of the common man against repressive elites from the reformation onwards.  They featured prominently in the American Revolution.

The Fulbright Lecture is given every year by a prominent individual on a subject that is topical, meaningful and somehow dealing with issues common to Britain and America. It allows ideas to flow across the pond and gives us a hint, if not to actual fully formed policy, then to the direction of travel of policy on both sides of the Atlantic.

This year’s lecture was given on 14th September by Lionel Barber the editor of the Financial Times.  His theme was “The Future of News and Newspapers in the Digital Revolution”.  It’s a somewhat dry title, but the bit I picked up on was his thoughts on regulation.  Clearly, as we have seen with elements of the Murdoch press, regulation needs tightened up, indeed the paper press with only a few exceptions are a sorry lot and Barber was seeking a new more effective mechanism, but even more importantly Barber was also looking beyond the paper press to the blogosphere.  He sees a need to regulate blogs, especially those he sees as “aggregate blogs” which act in many ways as on-line newspapers gathering items they have not themselves written and repackaging these in attractive formats.

And he is not just meaning simply the big boys and girls like Order Order and Huffington Post with their pop-ups, advertising and sales, but would gather in the smaller, more shall we say boutique sites who do not operate commercially or charge for content, like oh say The Oligarch Kings and everyone else you might be reading. All blogs.  On principal.  The principal being it seems that these nasty little peasant scribblers should be regulated and kept in their place – which as the establishment would have it would be firmly under the thumb, buried in form filling, applications and fees.

A nicely produced pamphlet of Mercurius Aulicus 

Blogs today fit exactly the role that pamphlets, tracts and handouts have done since the days of Guttenberg.  They are the rising voice of the people, cries against tyranny and the samizdat press of its day.

Order-Order for those who do not read it, is a scurrilous, vibrant, vicious tongued and worst of all for the establishment –funny- blog that is a complete thorn in the flesh of the Westminster village.  If you want to know the gossip on British politics first then you should go there.  It’s fair to say that its writer Guido Fawkes has made any number of enemies who would love him silenced.

Barber though is clever enough to muddle the message slightly.  He slips it in behind a cry to preserve the copyright of the originators of material who may find that it is taken over to other sites or even into aggregate blogs where the host runs advertising and makes a profit from their efforts.  By implication this was a reprise of the arguments about Huffington Post earlier this year.

Barber is a big voice in big business, and represents a press who are under severe pressure from the blogs – those penny pamphleteers of the twenty-first century.  The corporate mind does not wish the voice and sneers of the hoi polloi being heard in nice places.  Tax the buggers he says, regulate their output, bury their nasty little blogs in paper-work and send round the fuzz to take away their keypads if they don’t do as they are told.

“Fourth, it is vital that the industry participates fully in the new system. The current PCC system is dangerouslyclose to a la carte. In future, all printed media should be “encouraged” to be full members and committed to making it work. There should be consequences for those who opt out a la Express Newspapers, perhaps via a form of statutory levy on advertising revenues for non-participants, with such levies being used to fund the new body.

Should the new system embrace new media such as the Huffington Post UK or individual political bloggers such as Guido Fawkes? My answer is Yes, not simply in the interests of a level playing field but also because the distinction between old and new media are rapidly becoming meaningless in the new digital eco-system. New media is moving into reporting. Old media is blogging and tweeting, and using social media to promote and distribute news and analysis around the world.”

He hopes to engage you in decrying those who use others’ material for their own profit and to include those who simply report or pass on thoughts and commentary.

But we have been here before, we have fought the same battles before, and the big boys lost then as they will now.  The Reformation throughout Europe, the Civil War in England and the American Revolution were all prime examples of the glory days of the pamphlet the then blog of its day, every bit as transient and ephemeral then as its inheritors now.  And every bit as effective.

“Pamphlet! Pamphlet! If my mother finds I’m in a pamphlet she’ll disown me…”

Copyright David Macadam 2011

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