Monday, 7 November 2011

Blogger Goes To Parliament

Last Thursday night saw me leaving behind the comfortable confines of KT4 to travel to Westminter  - the beating heart of UK democracy.

The humble Worcester Park Blogger had been invited to go to Parliament to discuss how online communities and local blogs can become better engaged with the Parliamentary processes and how Parliament itself can tap into these new media channels to engage with a wider audience to capture public opinion and feed it back into the democractic process.

As well as representatives from big online communities such as Mumsnet and Student Room, I was in the company of a motley assortment of 'hyperlocal' bloggers who, like myself, have established thriving local community blogs and forums - WimbledonSW19.com, Greenwich.co.uk, London SE1 and Charlton Champion to name but a few.

As we talked, some common themes emerged - the demand from local people for relevant local news, opinion and debate of issues related directly to their neigbourhood is very clearly evident and is behind the growth and popularity of so many hyper-local sites.

Also clearly evident is the frustration at the decline or even demise of local newspapers - those who do survive so often reduced to a few perfunctory pages of regurgitated press releases or syndicated pseudo-local content draped around swathes of advertisements and estate agents' supplements.

With some notable exception, the days of quality local print journalism look to be numbered. Stepping in to fill this void are an increasing number of thriving local blogs set up to inform on local issues, act as a voice for their neighbourhoods and provide essential scrutiny of the work of local Councils and politicians.

As for the reaction of local Councils to local blog sites, the same theme emerged time and time again - Councils' opinion of and reaction to local bloggers ranges from outright contempt to a stubborn refusal to acknowledge their existence, let alone engage with them. These new fangled local websites and blogs are seen as an irritation, lacking in credibility and definitely not to be dignified by any form of official response or engagement from the Council.

It might be individual bloggers who create them, but it is the hundreds of thousands of local readers who with informed and intersting comment and contribution ensure that these sites continue and prosper.

By association these blog readers (and that includes you) are regarded by so many local Councils as unimportant. These are Councils who are still firmly rooted in a world where an opinion only counts if it is expressed in green-ink on a letter, voiced in constituency surgery, or from a plastic chair in a meeting at a local community hall.

I didn't start The Worcester Park Blog with any grand vision in my mind. It always has been and always will be a bit of fun; yet I like to think that in the four years it has been running it has come to serve some kind of a purpose - to inform as well as to provide some light relief, to act as a forum for the expression of views on local events, to publicise local good causes and community issues, to address the sometimes serious issues of local politics. And, above all, to continue to laugh at the preposterous number of hairdressers in Worcester Park.

So the fact that the great beast that is Parliament recognises the role and potential of online communities and blogs, invited us up to Westminster to hear our views and wants to work with us in the future is in itself a massive step forward.

There were many great ideas shared on the evening about how Parliament can better share its welath of information that is relevant to local bloggers and communities and bring what can seem a remote and inaccessibly instution in touch with its subjects.

Even more encouraging is the news that Parliament wants to use these established sites to tap into the opinions of the wider public - we heard how Parliament worked with Student Room to seek opinion from the site's audience on a range of issues affecting young people, and feed these opinions directly into the work of Parliamentary Select Committee.

The fact that Parliament might one day in the future be directly engaging with, listening to and acting upon the opinions expressed on blogs such as this is a fascinating prospect.

It certainly leaves our local Councils with an awful lot of catching up to do.