Drat, I go away for a few days break, and Somerset springs to life.
Somerton is about 12 miles north of Yeovil, nice little place, with plenty of character, and some good local churches. Last week most of the town council walked out. Why? Initial reports suggested that it was all the work of one lone local blog (Muck & Brass), and that they'd got fed up with his criticism of the council.
Some of the reportage:
Newsnight (starts about 19min in, will expire in a couple of days). Slightly patronising. The clip is reproduced on Michael Cricks blog in Youtube format.
Western Gazette (local paper). Love the 'internet blogger'. Didn't realise there were other sorts ;-)
BBC, which cuts and pastes from the Gazette.
The Mail, and Times.
1. People do get hurt, even by mild terms of abuse like 'clown' and 'jackass'. See 6.
2. It's hard to know exactly what went on as an outsider, but it seems that the blog itself has catalysed the local community to take more interest in their council. It will be interesting to see if the energy generated as critics turns into energy generated to stand as councillors. On the national stage, we're all quite happy to have a pop at MP's, but will we see hordes of people putting themselves forwards as candidates in May?
3. The blogger himself has been the target for vandalism and abuse. There's been a cost to him and his family for saying what he's said. That's pretty shocking, and if there is a link to his criticism of the council, then comparisons with the Wild West become valid.
4. Reading through Muck and Brass, there seem to be several legitimate concerns: the way the council spends money, conflict of business and council interests, freedom of information requests and transparency. These are the kind of things a local council should expect from the people it serves. Scrutiny is part of democracy - the unwritten contract is that the scrutiny should be fair, and that the elected representatives should be answerable.
5. The 'lone blogger' angle is far from the whole story. Over 100 local people attended the meeting last week where the councillors walked out. The blog has perhaps been a catalyst for this. In many ways its an online version of the letters pages of the local paper, where we get several letters a week about what the local council is up to. The fact that the blogger names himself, and goes in person to the council meetings, makes it part of a conversation, rather than anonymous sniping from the sidelines. If that can't be part of healthy local democracy, then that's bad news.
6. Volunteering itself is a complex thing: people offer their time and energy for all sorts of reasons, and holding volunteers to account it trickier than doing it with folk who are paid. Paid people at least know it's a fair cop if they're not doing their job, but volunteers are doing it 'out of the goodness of their hearts' (hopefully). They're also doing it (in many cases) because nobody else has stepped forward, and they can feel taken for granted and put upon if folk merely criticise, but don't offer any help or any constructive feedback. In a naturally critical culture like England, that's a bit of a problem, and one we experience in the church too.
Elsewhere, I notice that blogging is part of the local response to the Olympics developments in London - see Leabank Square, and LifeIsland, a blog devoted to some local allotments which were moved out to make way for the Olympic site. They're taking on a slightly bigger beast, and without the same dramatic results as in Somerton. But the blogs provide a forum for campaigning and feedback that simply didn't exist 10 years ago. Yes there can be mass, Twitter-induced hysteria, which doesn't serve anyone, but the web now has to be an integral part of local and national democracy. Having said that, it doesn't replace it.
Which makes it all the more frustrating that one of our local council sites is the slowest in the country. But perhaps I should contact them about it, rather than just whine about it here. (Just visited to check my facts, and it's actually a lot quicker than it used to be, so I emailed them to say thankyou).