Paul Mason: journalism and the power of the network

August 2, 2011

He’s a self confessed “geek” who bought a Sinclair Spectrum computer with his first wage packet and says the arrival of the internet was "like Christmas". So it’s not suprising that BBC Newsnight‘s economics editor Paul Mason embraced social media with enthusiasm.

One of the first BBC journalists to start a blog, Mason said during a Reflections event at the Frontline Club last week that he “kind of got” the internet even before he worked at Computer Weekly.

"I got what it could do, it’s the network,” said Mason, who remembers reading the now "famous" article New Rules for the New Economy by Wired founding executive editor Kevin Kelly when it was first published in the magazine in 1997.

"It’s the article now," said Mason. "What does he say? The key innovations in the last ten years have not been in the structure of computers but in the links between them. And that’s the take off point, for me, for the third or fourth, whatever you want to call it, industrial revolution.

"I’d written about the network and its power as a computer journalist and commentator but then suddenly to see social networking. To me it’s the future of our profession, it’s the future of what we do. I was determined to pile into it."

Encouraged by the then Newsnight editor Peter Barron, Mason started his blog Idle Scrawl in the run up to the 2005 G8 conference at Gleneagles and “relentlessly persevered with it”.

While the response elsewhere in the BBC was less enthusiastic – someone in the  IT department said that it was not “in the BBC universe” – the blog attracted a wide readership and was twice nominated for the Orwell Prize.

Most significantly what it – and later Twitter did "exponentially" – was increase Mason’s ability to hold a conversation with the audience.

“You’re in a conversation with the audience way before you do your uber journalism, which is your piece,” said Mason.

Mason used one of his blog posts “Dubstep rebellion” about protests in London in December 2010 to illustrate how his mainstream media journalism is now shaped and informed by social media.

“Within about two hours of it going up a bloke had sent me a detailed refutation of the fact that the music on the riot was Dubstep and in fact, within a day, someone had produced a playlist of 10 tracks that were played."

Mason discovered that the music being played during the protest was in fact Grime and its importance to people taking part derived from the fact it was banned from “all the champagne popping black clubs” in London.

"That’s something I’ll know in future and that’s why social media is important, it’s about detail," said Mason.

But the importance of social media is “about way more than the MSM stuff” said Mason, who like growing numbers of people, now follows key journalists and activists on Twitter to find out information before it’s in “the news”.

As Twitter becomes more populated by journalists they will be experimenting with different ways of using it, predicted Mason, who explained his use of the "Twitter Splurge" when the Guardian reported that the Eurozone had agreed a deal on Greek debt. Mason was filming in the United States and didn’t have time to writes a blog post, so tweeted 10 points that formed a "little article" and provoked comments from other financial journalists.

Mason also predicted get there will be greater cooperation between journalists, bloggers and tweeters, with "little coalescences" forming and working together. 

The labour historian also demonstrated the role a specialist journalist can play in not only reporting events, but in providing context for others in the network:

He recalled how he asked an Egyptian blogger what she knew about Egyptian history and discovered that she hadn’t heard of the former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

“And yet she’s one of the leading bloggers in the revolution,” he said.

Similarly, young British activists he spoke to who used the hashtag #solidarity had never heard of the Polish trade union Solidarnosc or the union anthem “Solidarity Forever".

"You can also bring that aspect to the people involved in the struggle," said Mason.