EasyJetsetter has what ought to be the definitive statement on the whole Dilpazier Aslam brouhaha:

Boys, I know you’re enjoying yourselves immensely, but I was rather proud that the British blogging world wasn’t as focused on “scalping” and “fisking” and such. Please go lower your own country’s discourse.

Yes, Dilpazier Aslam is a tit and he said some idiot things. But there are lots of tits saying idiot things in Britain’s newspapers. I’m bloody proud that we have a partisan press. It’s a lot more interesting that dry, supposedly objective dusty tomes. There’s a reason they call it dead-tree media over there.

I agree wholeheartedly with this.

I’m not sure where I stand on this particular story: I have a lot of respect for the Guardian as a journalistic institution, and I hate to see political points scored against it by right-wing bloggers. On the other hand, they clearly screwed up by allowing a partisan reporter cover events and state opinions without declaring his interest.

But I am sure that if collecting scalps of journalists from ideologically-opposed publications comes to be seen as the gold standard around here, something will have gone terribly wrong with the British section of the blogosphere. Back in February, when the Eason Jordan thing was in full swing, Kevin Drum made a similar point about the sparce achievements of American blogs:

In the wider world, throw in Trent Lott, Ward Churchill, and Jeff Gannon — and probably some others I’ve forgotten about — and you start to wonder: is this really the blogosphere’s biggest contribution to public discourse? Collecting scalps?

Sure, these guys bear varying amounts of culpability and deserve varying amounts of criticism, but if you take a look at the standard history of the blogosphere it becomes clear that its best known incidents on both left and right — Lottgate! Rathergate! Easongate! — all revolve around public figures being viciously hounded out of their jobs. Positive accomplishments, conversely, are pretty thin on the ground.

I guess we all have our own ideas of what the blogosphere is good for. But when the history books are finally written, I hope that cranking up the politics of personal destruction yet another notch isn’t what we end up being most famous for.

I’ve been posting about this primarily because I’m interested in contributing to the rough first draft — or at least the marginal notes — of the history of political blogging in Britain, and like Kevin Drum in the US, I hope we don’t end up famous for this sort of thing, either.

From a theoretical point of view, this story has raised some interesting questions. I used to think that because of the tradition of a partisan press and the lack of a 30-year campaign by the right to decertify mainstream journalism, this sort of thing would not catch on in Britain the way it has in the United States.

Clearly, though, that’s not quite right. There are still things that are culturally beyond the pale, even in a partisan press. There are still professional values of journalism that need to be policed, and the bloggers are clearly patrolling those boundaries.

The American media scholar Daniel Hallin described this realm of acceptable partisan debate as the “sphere of legitimate controversy”. In the context of “objective” American journalism, he wrote, there is a realm of opinions which are mainstream and must be framed as competing viewpoints in a political argument. But outside that zone, there is a zone of devience where journalism’s rules of “objectivity” are summarily defenestrated. Radical ideas deemed beyond the pale are open to ridicule and disdain wherever they appear.

By extension, members of radical parties whose views are deemed beyond the pale cannot be trustworthy journalists, even in a partisan publication that makes no claim to objectivity. Policing the boundary between these zones is clearly what this scandal is all about, as Shiv Malik, the freelance journalist who first brought this story into the mainstream in the Independent on Sunday made clear in a recent New Statesman column:

What readers of the Guardian were not told was that Aslam is a member of the extreme Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir. Though it publicly dissociates itself from violence, Hizb ut-Tahrir is shunned by most British Muslims and banned from many mosques. As I have reported in the New Statesman, it manipulates people and can be seen as part of a conveyor belt towards violence — its literature was found, for example, in the home of Omar Sharif, the Derby man who volunteered for a suicide bombing mission in Israel. Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned in Germany.

My strongly held view is that members of such a group should not be allowed to write on this subject in the national press (just as the British National Party, which also claims to be non-violent, is very rarely given space), but if they do their connection should be made clear, preferably at the beginning of the article.

It’s interesting to see that a the “zone of legitimate controversy” also exists in a partisan newspaper system. Quite rightly, the BNP and Hizb ut-Tahrir are outside that zone in Britain. Their views are not described in the media as if they were a serious part of mainstream policy discussions.

But whether their rank-and-file members should not be allowed to be employed in national newspapers is a much more complicated matter. They should certainly identify their interests when writing about political topics. But shouldn’t that rule also apply to Guardian columnists who are Labour or Lib Dem partisans? Or does that standard not apply to parties inside the sphere of legitimate controversy?