Media Analysis: Meet the kings of political blogs

The Conservative Party this week hosted a 'blog surgery' at its annual conference, while leader David Cameron has just launched his own blog. Alex Black asks three popular right-wing bloggers what keeps them posting.

Whether breaking stories, highlighting errors in ministers' statements, or simply filling in the gaps in lobby gossip, blogs have become essential reading for MPs, civil servants, hacks and lobbyists alike.

The ‘right' dominates the ‘left' in terms of blog popularity, most likely because attacking those in power makes better reading than sticking up for them. Conservative leader David Cameron has just launched Webcameron and the Tory Party conference in Bournemouth this week even saw a ‘surgery' on how to set up and run a blog.

The top three are Guido Fawkes, Iain Dale and ConservativeHome (see boxes): the first two are centre-right, while the latter focuses  on what individual Tories are up to.

Other popular sites include Kerron Cross's blog (kerroncross.blogspot.com), Libdemvoice.org, burningourmoney.blogspot.com and boris-johnson.com.

The broadsheets, too, have their own political blogs. The Daily Telegraph's Commons Confidential recently joined The Times' Comment Central and The Guardian's Comment is Free.

‘Reach stakeholder groups'
Nick Keable, V-P at The Saint Consulting Group, says although many are boring and meaningless, some blogs are useful to test the political temperature.

‘If you want to know what people in Westminster are saying, the right blogs will tell you what's going on,' says Keable.

Hill & Knowlton managing consultant James Barbour says blogs have yet to become powerful enough to change policy: ‘The policy-forming machinery hasn't yet started to follow blogs seriously, but blogs do offer a unique way of reaching stakeholder groups.'

Fleishman-Hillard associate director (and former Tory spokesman) Gavin Megaw says political blogs do two things well: spreading gossip and breaking news: ‘Members of the Cabinet read these things. People see blogs as real-time focus groups, and can pick up on things that are going to be important issues.'

Megaw adds that lobbyists who ignore blogs are ‘foolish', warning: ‘Blogs are another tool in the campaign armoury and you can't write a proposal without factoring them in.'

The main political parties - and those PROs operating in the Westminster village - are certainly taking blogs seriously:

GUIDO FAWKES

url:
 5thnovember.blogspot.com
Traffic: circa 25,000 hits a day

Come on, Guido, tell PRWeek who you really are...
No. Being anonymous makes it extremely difficult for barristers to serve me with writs.

What is the blog's main purpose?
It is a centre-right anti-politics website that I run for my own personal amusement and use to make as much mischief as possible. I hate politicians lying.

Was there a particular story that established the blog?
In April 2005 I was the first to raise awareness of the similarity between the ‘Michael Howard as Shylock' ad [run by Labour] and Nazi propaganda posters. I emailed my story to newsdesks and suddenly it was everywhere.

Why do so many people read you?
If there's a scandal, there's a decent chance I'll know what's going on. My traffic spikes during scandals, and some of that is because journos are checking they haven't missed something. The political researchers read it, as do lobbyists. Citigate Public Affairs was the first PA firm to place ads (PRWeek, 29 Sep).

What happens to press releases?
At best they go in the bin; at worst I'll deconstruct them. If it's about something serious, you really are asking for trouble. Saying that, if it's edgy, sexy, funny and involves free booze, I might give it a second look.

IAIN DALE

url:
 iaindale.blogspot.com
Traffic: circa 10,000 hits a day

How long have you been blogging?
Since 2002, but this latest incarnation is from December last year.

Why did you start?
It was useful when I became a Tory candidate for North Norfolk in 2005. You're always looking for publicity and a blog is a good way to communicate with the electorate without the filters of local press.

And now?
It started to get serious traffic after my coverage of Charles Kennedy standing down in December, but I never intended to break stories. It was just a vehicle for comment and occasional gossip.

Other favourite stories?
Cherie Blair signed a copy of the Hutton Report and it appeared on eBay. It was covered by one of the Sunday papers but ignored by the nationals the next week. I covered it and then it was in all the nationals and on the radio. Afterwards I realised the entire Westminster lobby must have read my blog.

How do you put it together?
I post about six or seven blogs a day. One or two of those will be from my BlackBerry.

How much outside input do you get?
I probably get 400-500 emails a day, although I haven't heard from Vodafone's PR people yet! [‘Why I Hate Vodafone', posted 28 September].


CONSERVATIVE HOME

url:
 conservativehome.blogs.com (edited by Tim Montgomerie)
Traffic: circa 21,000 hits a day

What's the secret of a successful political blog?
Providing information quickly. I can operate faster than the newspapers. I don't have an editorial chain to work through and I don't have to wait for 6pm so I can put a news bulletin out. I have as much or as little space as I need.

From where does your material come?
I get a lot of information from TV and newspapers. We feed off each other. Over the past six months the volume of information that's come in from councillors, MPs and journalists has greatly increased. Journalists whose stories have been spiked are starting to call more often.

What do you not like to hear about?
Information from activists on local issues and personal tittle-tattle. I cover national issues. The only local stories I cover are candidate races, which readers always like.

How many of you work on the site?
I have a student who is helping me but my news team is the reader. Our story about the new Tory logo came from someone who had been to a meeting where a mock-up of the logo was shown. He took a picture of it on his mobile phone and sent it to me -that's citizen journalism. I don't need paid reporters.

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