A recent Times article has given the British political blogosphere some much-needed attention — including some from some rather unsavoury sources.

While Iain Duncan-Smith fantasises about blogs saving the Tories, Nosemonkey of Europhobia thinks the British blogosphere is a largely pointless waste of time.

I fear Nosemonkey may be right. Although Iain Duncan-Smith doesn’t seem to grasp this, it’s impossible to understand the success of political blogging in the United States without taking account of the particular political context in which it operates.

First, blogging has filled a niche that the particular structure American journalism has left open: partisan reporting. The ideology of journalism that has emerged in the United States since the 19th century is professional “objectivity“. A widely-held norm of objectivity lends itself to criticism based on charges of partisan bias.

American journalism’s notion of objectivity has an economic basis. American print journalism is based on a system of regional monopolies that attempt to be slavishly centrist in order to attract the widest possible audience. Broadcasting is still dominated by the networks which operate in a similar way, although the recent advent of cable and satellite channels is challenging that.

British mainstream journalism, by contrast, is relatively more diverse. The big media are national in scope and compete in a highly competitive market for eyeballs that they must segment along partisan lines to survive. Brits understand this instinctively. They know that their journalism is biased. People who read the Daily Mail or the Guardian understand that they are getting a particular point of view. Brits are accustomed to a partisan media, and know how to decode the news accordingly. A blog screaming about the manifold biases of the Sun isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know.

For the same reason, there is less need in Britain for additional partisan view points — the British “MSM” is organised in a way that provides them. There’s not much room for a blogger to rant about the views of the Guardian when Telegraph columnists already do it far more effectively for a huge audience.

The media scalp-hunting that has characterised American bloggers’ most celebrated successes occur all the time in Britain — within the mainstream media. The Andrew Gillian and Piers Morgan stories might have been conservative blogger scalps if their errors of fact-checking had occurred in the United States. The tabloids also provide the political pseudo-scandals that might have emerged on blogs in the United States: think Chris Bryant.

A second weakness of the British blogosphere is that electoral politics in Britain are far less media-dependent than in the United States. In contrast to America’s lengthy, national, extensive and media-driven electoral campaigns fought over geographically huge constituencies, Britain’s short general election campaigns are still fought largely at the level of relatively small parliamentary constituencies. Retail politics — leaflets in letterboxes and doorstep canvassing — dominate campaigns.

Rather than months of media mudslinging providing grist for the blogger mill, British general elections trigger strict impartiallity rules in broadcasting.

The lack of expensive broadcast campaigning also means that campaign finance is also less of a battleground than it is in the United States. A blog-driven grassroots fundraising effort like the celebrated efforts of Howard Dean or Ben Chander is therefore unlikely to occur here.

Finally, there are sheer numbers. Britain has a similar (but still slightly lower) level of Internet penetration to the United States’. But relative numbers are meaningless: in blogging, it’s absolute numbers matter. The blogosphere network works by having a large number of nodes (ie readers) who can contribute to the distributed information-gathering structure that makes blogs effective.

The big American political blogs are predominantly national in scope.
An effective national sub-blogosphere may therefore require a critical mass that Britain alone may not be big enough to deliver. With a popuation of 60 million, Britain is only about the size of the three biggest American states combined.

To attract a potential internet-user population of the same order of magnitude, a sub-blogosphere would have to emerge at the pan-European level. But language differences alone make that unlikely.

But before you dispair, go check out the UK Political Blogs aggregator and add your favourites to Tim Worstall’s laudable BritBlog Roundup project.