An MP's guide to blogs

Labour MP for Newport West, Paul Flynn has apparently ‘been stripped of a Parliamentary allowance for making fun of other MPs on his blog‘, if you read today’s BBC piece on the subject. Flynn himself tells the story slightly differently, on said blog.
I’ve had a similar run-in with my own MP, Newbury’s Richard Benyon (Con). Back in September, the first posting on his new blog made some undeniably party-political comments: he talked about Labour being in a state of ‘desperation’, and his boss David Cameron ‘[continuing] to look like a Prime Minister in waiting’.
Good old political knockabout, nothing wrong with that… except his website proudly declared on every page that it is ‘paid for from his Communications Allowance’, which is explicitly not to be used ‘to promote, criticise or campaign for or against anyone seeking election’. To his credit, he made swift if superficial amends: I don’t see from a technical viewpoint how it’s possible for ‘not [to be] connected to’.

The point is this: as both Flynn and Benyon have said, playing by the Parliamentary allowance’s rules would have meant a ‘totally non-political, fence sitting and boring’ blog. With the cost of setting up a basic blog being so low, indeed zero in most cases, it doesn’t make sense to take a chance with the ‘Byzantine complexity of the House of Commons rules’ (to quote Mr Benyon, although frankly I’m not buying that; the rules couldn’t be much clearer).
If you’re an MP, and you want to start a blog, here are the facts:

  • Most political blogs live on, a hosted service owned by Google, and free of charge. It’s not the most sophisticated platform in the world, but it does allow you total freedom to customise your pages… if you so wish. It’s good enough for Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale, generally seen as the #1 and #2 in the UK; they’ve gone to considerable lengths to design their sites. Others, like Lynne Featherstone, John Pugh, David Jones or Andy Love really haven’t.
  • Personally, I find a better blogging tool; but in its free, hosted incarnation, it’s limited in its scope for (full-on) customisation. See Tom Harris‘s top-rated blog, or the Lords Of The Blog group effort.
  • But there are other free alternatives. Adrian Sanders runs his blog on MySpace – hey, why not? Tory MEP Daniel Hannan has a blog on the Telegraph‘s website; and whilst his is technically on the ‘columnists’ side of the fence, rather than the ‘public’ service, there’s nothing to stop you doing that either. It’s not ideal, but maybe it suits you and your situation.
  • If you want extra functionality, extra control or extra customisation, you’re looking at spending some money – but frankly, it needn’t be more than the price of a (very modest) dinner for two. Typepad used to be the service of choice for those who wanted to take things more seriously; their ‘pro’ service costs £75 a year, and gives you all the customisation and room for expansion you’re likely to need. Paul Flynn‘s site lives there, as does ConservativeHome, and the blogs of lobby journalists Benedict Brogan and Paul Waugh (among others).
  • These days, the (generally) preferred option – certainly in these parts! – is to download and run your own copy of WordPress. It’s free, and it’s the best; but you’ll need to pay a few quid to put it somewhere – say £22.99 a year from Eukhost; and running it yourself does take some effort. Tom Watson, John Redwood and Richard Benyon use it, as does the remarkably popular; but for a simple blog, it’s probably overkill. When you want to do something more, though, it’s perfect: ask Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and Jim Murphy.

There’s absolutely no shame in using the free options; and if you decide you need more, for whatever reason, you’re looking at a couple of hundred quid, tops… with most of that going to the friendly geek who sets it up for you. I dare say many MPs could find that kind of sum down the back of their sofa.
Spending a portion of your Communications Allowance on a blog is just The Wrong Thing To Do. And frankly it calls into question the purpose of the ‘totally non-political, fence sitting and boring’ Allowance in the first place. £10,000 times 646 MPs, times 4 years in a typical Parliament equals… no, don’t, it’s a terrifying answer.
PS: By sheer coincidence, I note that the British Computer Society held its MP Website Awards today: winners were Derek Wyatt, John Hutton, Alan Johnson and  Kerry McCarthy. All Labour, for the record.

Ofcom's commentable documents

Ofcom’s Tom Loosemore shows there’s still plenty that can be done with Typepad; an ‘interactive’ version of their Communications Market Review has just gone up on the same account used to host their Public Service Broadcasting review blog. It’s actually the second time they’ve done this; there was a similar trial earlier this year, with the PSB Review itself.
It works very much along the same lines as CommentOnThis; or the CommentPress theme for WordPress, as used by Steph at DIUS. But it’s one of the more innovative uses of Typepad you’ll see.
I must admit, I’ve gone off Typepad as a platform: I was finding it too restrictive, too tied to the concept of blogging (where WordPress was open to being used as a lightweight CMS). However, the single biggest thing in its favour remains the ease of setup: £75.90 per year, giving you full design control (unlike, say, generous disk space and bandwidth allocations, a custom domain, and the IT department need never know. News of a next generation platform is intriguing, with the promise of new features in time… but it’ll take a lot to wean me off WordPress now.
Given Typepad’s restrictions, Tom’s interactive approach is quite an achievement. Each paragraph in the document is its own blog ‘post’, with its own comment stream. It looks as if Tom may have spent a few hours last Friday, painstakingly creating each post in reverse order, to ensure they appeared in numerical order on the site’s (reverse chronological) homepage. Not something you’d want to do regularly… and WordPress ‘pages’ would have made it much easier. But hey, full marks for inventiveness!
(Thanks to Ross Ferguson.)

MOD's news blog duplication

It’s just over a year since the MOD launched ‘Defence News: official news blog’, not to be confused with ‘Defence News‘ on its main corporate site.
The main ‘Defence News’ site is a full-on news service, publishing 3 or 4 substantial articles each day. There’s a proper (editorially arranged) ‘front page’, with articles tagged by topic and service… and each of those has a proper ‘section front page’ too. And an RSS feed. (Two in fact, although I think one’s just got more items in it than the other. Shouldn’t be necessary.)
The code doesn’t reveal the technology they’re using, but there’s more than a hint of ‘blog platform’ about it. I’m really, really impressed.
So it’s a little curious to have the ‘official news blog’ alongside. Hosted at Typepad, the same three elements appear every day: ‘Defence in the Media’, ‘Image of the Day’, and ‘Defence Diary’. Other categories – such as ‘For the record’ and ‘Pick of the web’ – seem to have been effectively abandoned.
‘Defence in the Media’ is a press summary: sometimes there’s a link to the originating article, or the source material mentioned in the report(s); more often, it’s a link straight over to the main Defence News site. There’s also a curious ‘Defence News Feed’ pointing to stories on external news sites: again, I can’t quite tell how it’s working, but there are signs of both automation and editorial selection.
A PQ yesterday from Tory defence spokesman Liam Fox seems to be hinting at duplication of effort… and I’m inclined to agree. I don’t see much in the ‘news blog’ which couldn’t form part of the main Defence News site – to mutual benefit. And whilst the separate blog site should allow for greater experimentation, there’s no sign of it. (No use of comments, for example.)
Meanwhile, also on the same Typepad account: two excellent ‘on location’ sites – one in Afghanistan, launched late last year; the other in Basra, launched in March. Again, it’s good use of cheap technology… and although the content can sometimes be a bit dry and ‘factsheet’-esque, I bet ‘the folks back home’ value the ability to see a glimpse of what’s happening whilst loved ones are away.

Ofcom blogging at last

The only surprise about Ofcom launching a new blog, in support of its review into Public Service Broadcasting, is that it’s taken so long, with veteran blogger Tom Loosemore over there. (It does bear an uncanny resemblance to Tom’s personal blog, actually.) With electronic communications being part of its remit, and its stated objective to ‘remain at the forefront of technological understanding’, you’d have expected them to be an early adopter. (See thoughts from BBC man Nick Reynolds on a related subject.)
This new blog is hosted on Typepad, which I used to recommend for people keen to run a ‘bog standard’ blog, especially if hosting was going to be an issue – but don’t any more. My experience is that people inevitably want ‘normal website’ features at some point, and Typepad really isn’t geared up for that. Not to the same extent WordPress is, anyway. (Another recent launch on Typepad is the Dept of Health’s Diabetes blog, for whom Typepad’s instant availability was the primary motivation.)
Meanwhile, across the blogosphere – I’m just a little surprised by the ultra-personal tone of David Miliband’s latest post: reflecting on Arsenal’s performance on Tuesday night. Well done for the attempt to tie it into European politics. And yes, for the record, I have to agree on the sentiments. I’m not sure we’ll see Philippe Senderos surviving the summer: occasionally he does OK, but that’s not really good enough.

Health minister now blogging, courtesy of Puffbox

Today sees the launch of version 2 of the website I designed and built for Lord Darzi’s national review of the NHS. V1 was built in double-quick time during the summer, and for reasons of cost and speed, used the Typepad blogging platform. Over the last month or so, Typepad’s limitations have become more and more apparent… so it was time to migrate to WordPress. Which, of course, is what I’d always wanted.
All the juicy new stuff hangs off the homepage. ‘Latest news’ is (as you’d expect) a listing of the top news updates, using a special ‘homepage’ category to give the authors total control. ‘Lord Darzi’s blog’ is the latest blog to be written by a government minister, but unlike some, we’re positively encouraging comments. Finally, there’s the ‘latest video’: the review team is producing quite a lot of video content, so we’re sticking it on YouTube, and using YouTube’s little-known RSS feed functionality (with a bit of string manipulation) to pump it back into the site.
The primary navigation is a mix of blog categories and static ‘pages’: hey, if you dig deep enough, there’s even an old-school image map! How long is it since I did one of those? We haven’t made any distinction between the two; I’m not sure it really matters to the punters.
As it’s WordPress, we’ve got full comment functionality if we want it. The plan is that blog posts should generally have comments enabled, but news posts won’t. However, if we fancy it, we can. To draw attention to the items where comments are ‘on’, there’s a little speech bubble icon which appears against the relevant headlines. A minor thing, but it catches the eye really well.
Overall, it’s taken less than a week to recode the templates, develop the new functionality, and import the content. Importing from Typepad was relatively painless: the initial process took seconds, but then you’ve got the hassle of setting summaries for each item, identifying and repointing all the manual inline links, etc etc. I’m glad there wasn’t too much content to worry about. DNS changes and server reconfiguration took about a day and a half, which was a real disappointment, but at least it’s done now.
I’m really pleased with it; the initial site was OK, particularly given the laughably short timeframe, but I knew we could do better. I’m afraid the exercise has put me off using Typepad, though: although it does have some pseudo-CMS functionality, my feeling was that it’s too tied to the concept of blogging.
Next steps? We’re thinking of a photo gallery, and maybe even some delegated authoring responsibility. But that’s all for another day. My next WordPress-in-government project is looming, and is likely to be even bigger. 😉