The release of the final report of the Parliamentary Consitutional Affairs committee on the DCA/LSC proposed changes to legal aid funding was, I thought, an important moment in the wrestle over the future of legal aid. So I posted about it.
Imagine my surprise when, a day later, the post received a comment from “Oliver Heald MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs”. The comment can be seen here.
I must confess my first reaction was suspicion, so I did a quick ‘whois’ on the IP address of the commenter. It was indeed from a parliament.gov address. My second reaction, I am slightly ashamed to say, was pride – Nearly Legal, the trainee’s blog read by the shadow cabinet – but then sense and my natural scepticism kicked in. Scepticism found further food when I read a slightly abbreviated version of the same comment on a post on Outside the Law, which was also about the committee report.
Clearly, I agree with everything said in the comment by “Oliver Heald”, and we’ll take whatever support we can find in opposing the changes. But this was my first encounter as a blogger with the increasing sophistication of political parties in the use of new media.
There are a limited range of possibilities as to how largely identical comments ended up on Outside the Law and on this blog on the same day, apparently from “Oliver Heald”. In order of improbability, from most to least:
1. Oliver Heald regularly reads Nearly Legal and Ex-Lex.
2. Oliver Heald, the Shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs was having a bit of web browse on responses to the committee report and felt compelled to comment on two blawgs that posted on the issue.
3. An eager young webcameronite or two in Mr Heald’s office are attempting a hearts and minds approach in the new media, making their boss appear to be listening to the grassroots, responsive, and up to the minute.
I am of course making an assumption, but 3. seems like the most likely to me, particularly given the ‘not really getting the nature of a blog’ manifest in commenting under the full ‘Shadow Secretary…’ title. My apologies to Mr Heald if the comment was his own personal one.
However, I’m not sure how I feel about having this blog being used in such a manner, hence this post. What this has made concretely clear for me is that this is likely to be an increasing issue for anyone running a (not party political) blog dealing with some sort of topical issue.
For instance, with something like the legal aid reforms, which mean that a large number of people who might otherwise have been Labour are now very, very angry with the Government, the bright young things in the politicians’ offices will be keeping an eye on the blogs.
This will only increase in the future. So the question is what do bloggers do with these comments? I’m not sure. There appears to be an overlap between the realms of PR spam and valid comment, such that the usual response to PR guff – delete it – is perhaps not appropriate.
The comments, at least in this form, have a clearly identified party source, so are not masquerading as something that they are not (except most likely the identity of the actual poster). To that extent, they are honest and there is no reason not to let them through.
However, the comments are unlikely to be posted with any intention of entering in to a discussion, (if they are, then there is clearly no doubt over their validity), and are evidently attempting to use the blog as a vehicle for the image-management of the politico concerned. That leaves me, for one, feeling mildly used.
It might seem a bit like the form letters provided to party activists to send to their local newspapers under their names. But blogs are not local newspapers and when they are run by an individual, it is that individual’s effort and credibility, such as it is, that the politico is riding. If I want to offer my support to a party, I will do so, but that is my decision.
I haven’t come to a firm view, assuming I’m ever actually tested again. Perhaps the best course is to let them through and respond as appropriate – not that a comeback is likely.
Still, as Oliver Heald apparently commented in his capacity as a party MP, I’m sure he won’t mind me mentioning that, welcome as his support most certainly is in opposing the legal aid reforms, a brief look at his voting record on gay rights was enough to remind me why I don’t vote conservative.