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Blogging a protest

After the first parliamentary meeting organised by bloggers from across the political spectrum, Chris White asks if 'open-source campaigning' could take off

October 26, 2007
5 min read

It’s easy to dismiss blogging. Bloggers are often waved away as self-important navel-gazers talking to themselves. They’re ignored by politicians, ripped off by the media, and sneered at by activists – because while they’re happy to sit and whinge, they don’t actually do anything. Until now.

In October, a meeting was held in parliament to pressure the government into making special asylum arrangements for Iraqis whose lives had been threatened for working with British forces. It was the result of a blogger-driven campaign.

Staying with the story

The principal speaker was Mark Brockway, a former warrant officer in the Territorial Royal Engineers, who had employed a number of interpreters during his tour in Iraq, and knew of many who had been murdered as ‘collaborators’. He got the story picked up by Channel 4 news in May, after which it was also picked up by bloggers. But while the mainstream media’s news agenda moves on, bloggers don’t have to.

Campaign organiser Dan Hardie first saw the story on the blog Blood and Treasure. ‘I read it on a Friday evening and really lost my temper,’ he says. He then drafted a letter to his MP urging intervention, and initially left it as a blog comment. Hardie and another blogger, Daniel Davies, then decided to begin a mass letter-writing campaign involving as many other bloggers as possible in what was later termed ‘open-source campaigning’.

As the idea got picked up by more people, the campaign ended up with over 40 participants writing to their MP, and encouraging their readers to do the same – and many MPs had letters from constituents who weren’t bloggers themselves, but had read Hardie’s draft letter on the web.

Uniting the political spectrum

The result was a campaign involving every part of the political spectrum – from both pro- and anti-war left to the libertarian right – and, interestingly, many supporters who had never been involved in any sort of activism before.

‘It’s easier to get people involved via blogs because of the essential nature of the English character,’ claims participating blogger JonnyB. ‘One can feel strongly about something but have an abject horror of standing in the street shouting simplistic slogans. A blog allows a person to articulate his or her thoughts while remaining a private, non-aligned individual.’

One suspects that politicians are also more likely to pay attention to a group of disparate individuals than a standing campaign group.

But while there was support from all three main parties, both at the meeting and for an early day motion for a full parliamentary debate on the subject, the government still needs convincing. ‘The key is getting the government to admit that there’s a big problem here that they need to sort out,’ says Brockway.

It’s been easier than expected, however, to get the political class in general on side. While Hardie expected to have to jump through hoops to get his MP, the Liberal Democrat Lynne Featherstone, to sponsor the meeting in parliament, he found he gained her support almost immediately. ‘It’s something that pulls on your heartstrings, and doesn’t need much analysis,’ she says. ‘And something that all of us, on all sides, can rally round.’

Clear moral case

That there is such a clear moral case for a change in policy may show the limits of this kind of campaigning. Just as it’s easier to get MPs on board, a non-partisan issue makes it easier to get a range of bloggers involved, who would normally disagree on a great deal of issues.

For example, Hardie had had a long-running, strongly worded disagreement with another participant, Justin McKeating, and yet the two buried the hatchet to collaborate on this campaign, with McKeating keeping a handy log of MPs’ replies to constituents’ letters. On less neutral issues, it may be harder to get as much involvement, and a large number of high-traffic blogs are necessary to spread the word. The ‘blogosphere’ sometimes appears to be a second layer of the establishment media, with a tendency to cliquishness thrown in.

Yet in cases such as this, having such a wide knowledge base is an obvious advantage, and Hardie was first put in touch with Brockway through another blogger via the Army Rumour Service website. ‘This kind of campaigning is the best kind,’ admits the Refugee Council’s Bob Diffee. ‘You get people who know what’s going on on the ground, which we don’t.’

The three prime movers of this campaign – Hardie, Davies and David Cole, with whom Hardie spent an evening phoning hundreds of MPs – plan to publish what they’ve learned once this campaign is over. Whether blogger-led campaigning takes off or not, it’s sure to be a must-read for all campaigners.

Mark Brockway\’s campaign website

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