Writing on the “graffiti wall of death” – the role of an academic blog

Some thoughts on the “Meet the Editors and Bloggers” session at the LARSN Conference

Summary

Since June 2012, Law and Religion UK has provided a forum for what is billed as an “academically-rigorous exploration of the interactions between law and religion, together with the associated human rights issues”. This post is based on our own experience and explores what we believe to be the benefits and problems concomitant with the potential to communicate with up to one thousand potential readers through a couple of “clicks of the mouse”.

“Time is of the essence” for the reporting of law and religion, be it in the submission of a thesis, copy for an academic journal, or an article in one of the “red-tops”. For the writer, the time constraint often restricts the availability of source material, and the depth of analysis is governed by the deadline for the copy, the target word count and the overall editorial policy of the media outlet.

We believe that academic blogging has a particular niche within the publication spectrum; and this paper seeks to answer various questions:

  • What is its value to the writer, and to the readers?
  • Is writing for a blog an efficient use of an academic’s time?
  • What level of scrutiny and peer review does a piece receive?
  • Does it complement or detract from more traditional forms of academic writing?

Introduction

The first post on L&RUK appeared – very tentatively – on 17 February 2012, but it was not until the occasion of the John Lewis Memorial Lecture in May that year, given by Dr Alison Mawhinney of Bangor Law School, that we decided to join forces. As a result, we posted 18 or so items in the last two weeks in June 2012, and our blog has grown ever since, reaching its half million views from 187 countries in March 2016.

A visit to the LARSN web page demonstrates that there are very few academic blogs in the United Kingdom that focus on “law and religion”. Of these electronic resources, the page lists:

  • Web links
  • Journals
  • Research Groups, Clusters and Centres
  • Primary and Secondary Materials
  • Bodies and Organisations
  • Laws and Regulations of Religious Groups

and within the “primary and secondary” materials are four sites:

  • Ecclesiastical Law: The Online Legal Resource Site of Mark Hill
  • Law and Religion UK
  • Neil Addison’s Religion Law
  • Comments upon English Ecclesiastical Law by Phillip Jones

Approaches to academic blogging

Whilst the above list is far from exhaustive, the examples represent some of the different types of law and religion blog, although missing are examples of the “post-box” type of site that mainly relays links to news items cut and pasted from other publications but generally without comment or analysis. Neil Addison had been blogging on religious discrimination since 2008, whilst Phillip Jones was a relative newcomer starting in March 2012. Together, they represent the two different approaches to blogging.

On his site, Phillip Jones states:

“I maintain this blog solely out of interest in the subject of ecclesiastical law and governance … Some of the comments are based on unpublished papers written many years ago, but I have tried to update them to take account of any relevant changes in the law.”

An example of the importance of the scope of a blog and the time dimension was given by Neil Addison last year, when after running his Religion Law blog since 2008 he closed it down – regrettably, in our view – commenting:

“Unfortunately a Blog which is intermittent, as this one has become, is increasingly less and less valuable to its readers. Blogs really need to be updated daily if possible but weekly as a minimum.”

Neil explained that in 2008, religious discrimination legislation was just being introduced in Britain and the blog was a means of exploring those developments. As with most blogs, Religion Law was issue-driven, reporting and discussing cases as they occurred; but over the last year or so the number of cases had reduced, even if their importance had increased. His experience suggests that the scope of material covered by a blog determines the frequency with which items arise, which, in turn, has a bearing on the depth in which they can be covered.

When L&RUK started, we thought we had identified a gap in the market but did not anticipate the amount of available material relevant to “issues of law and religion in the United Kingdom – with occasional forays further afield”. Our purpose then, as now, was to provide objective coverage of the legislation associated with religion and law, with extensive links to primary sources. As such, we do not have a particular political or religious agenda to pursue and, for the most part, our blog is reactive to current events: like Philip Jones, we write it because we’re interested in the subject and, consequently, viewing numbers are not our primary concern. (Though, that said, if no-one read it, we wouldn’t write it.)

Law and Religion UK

The scope of the blog is quite wide, reflecting our common background through the Cardiff LLM (Canon Law). The most frequently used tags are: Canons of the Church of England; Church of England; equality; Article 9 ECHR; employment law; marriage; same-sex marriage; Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, since “law and religion” is such a broad field, in commenting on current issues it is sometimes necessary to stray well outside our respective comfort zones, such as genome editing and mitochondrial donation. We are not alone in this: in relation to events such as Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation and the sede vacante, even experienced canon lawyers were forced to admit “beyond the barest of canonical points … almost everything about Benedict’s future … must be fashioned practically from scratch”.

Nevertheless, in addition to media-induced speculations, other areas we tend to avoid include “mainstream” politics and human rights issues and the proceedings of the C of E General Synod, because other blogs – such as the UK Human Rights Blog, Archbishop Cranmer and Thinking Anglicans – cover them far better than we could. Likewise, we try very hard not to become involved in the campaigning aspects of issues such as pro-life vs pro-choice, LGBT issues or women priests and bishops of the C of E, although we will cover the legal issues raised. Geographically we do not consider in any depth legislation that is not applicable to UK/EU/CoE, though we sometimes report a case in another common law jurisdiction if we think it might interest readers.

The blog is issue-driven, which means that periodically there are “quiet news” periods, but normally we aim at three to four stand-alone posts per week, plus round-up of news on Sundays. The workload is split approximately equally, though we would very much welcome more frequent guest posts, particularly with a view to some kind of succession planning. The writing schedule is dependent upon the type of post: the round-up is written throughout the week ad hoc, with both of us adding material to the draft on issues we find interesting but not worth a stand-alone post. “Cut and paste”/”stop press” items are usually important Press Releases from government or church sources and are published with (very) basic comment as they become available, to be followed by a more considered piece, if appropriate, at a later date.

Parliamentary debates and reports from the secular courts are more time-consuming but we post on them as soon as practicable. However, we now issue reports of consistory court judgments on a monthly basis, although specific issues arising from them, such as the permanence of Christian burial, here and here, often warrant a stand-alone post alongside other current legal issues of more general interest.

Blog output

Taking up the point “if no-one read it, we wouldn’t write it”, it is worth giving a few statistics, which may be of encouragement to anyone contemplating blogging either as a guest blogger or a regular contributor, both of which we would readily welcome. Although L&RUK is clearly in a niche sector of the blogosphere, we passed our “half million page reads” milestone last month. When ebuzzing/Teads top blog rankings was in operation (i.e. until last September) we were frequently in the “top 10 blog” rankings in both the “law” and “religion and belief” categories. In 2015, the blog was in the top 100 law blogs recommended by the American Bar Association and, along with Mark Hill’s Ecclesiasitical Law Third Edition, was recommended by the Church of England in its booklet So you’re going to be an Archdeacon… the revised version of which was published this week.

When a post is published, details are automatically sent to our 390 subscribers and 50 RSS feeds, and tweeted to 900-odd Twitter followers. The average daily readership for April 2016 was 701, and figures for 2015 show that 74% of the readership is in the UK, 11% in the United States, 3% in Australia and 1% in Canada. The remainder is read in 186 other countries from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. The Church of England sometimes lists relevant posts in its Daily Digest of media coverage, and we are also picked up by Strasbourg Consortium: European Headlines, British Catholic Blog Updates, and others.

Last month, we had record daily and monthly readership figures, and a single post – Frank’s Sharia and the English legal system: the Government’s view – has attracted over 15,000 views since it was first published on 29 April 2013. Which is slightly surprising, but the Government does not seem to have said much about sharia since then.

Why blog at all?

Our prediction is that blogging, properly done, is likely to become an indispensable adjunct to academic writing. Before you respond “Well they would, wouldn’t they”, hear us out.

Blogging gives you the chance to try things out – but to try things out in a responsible, accountable way. If you are a half-serious academic blogger with a reasonable number of readers, what you post is constantly under scrutiny. It’s not exactly peer-review, but unless you are totally without self-awareness you cannot ignore the fact that a sloppy or ill-considered post will either attract lots of critical comment or wreck your reputation (such as it is) – and possibly both.

Blogging is current. If there were ever an area in which stuff “goes off” between the initial writing and final publication, that area must be academic law. Remember all those wise commentaries on the Chamber judgment in Lautsi v Italy about how the ECtHR was striking a blow for respect for the individual, tolerance and religious pluralism – only to be dashed when the Grand Chamber reversed it? That is not to say that the comments on the Chamber judgment were either worthless or wrong; but future generations looking back at Lautsi probably won’t bother to read them.

Blogging is not limited by an arbitrary word-count, which means you can write pieces that do not fit the academic journal norms. Case-notes for Law & Justice and the Ecclesiastical Law Journal have to be concise because journal editors need constantly to be aware of how much space they have to play with. But the blogger has no such constraints, so Frank tends to write his first drafts of case-notes on the blog – usually at far greater length than any journal would allow – then edit them fairly severely for hard-copy publication. A published case-note is meant to be what it says – a note – and a two-stage process helps to concentrate the mind on the essentials of the judgment.

Blogging provides a very useful aide-memoire for further research and writing, both for the bloggers and the readers. If you want to see what happened in the last six months in, say, human rights law, a good place to start is with a trawl through the UK Human Rights Blog and the Oxford Human Rights Hub. Or if you need to update yourselves on developments in law and religion in North America, start by taking a look at Howard Friedman’s Religion Clause blog and the Center for Law and Religion blog at St John’s University School of Law.

Legal blogging is a part of wider public engagement. Professor Mark Elliott recently tweeted asking his readers for examples of how his (excellent) blog, Public Law for Everyone, had been of use to them because, as he put it, “impact” is “one of the measures by which academics and law schools are now judged for fund-allocation purposes”. That aside, if the number of page-views of blogs such as UKHRB is anything to go by, there are a lot of non-specialist readers who occasionally need reliable information on legal topics. People will read legal stuff on the Internet who would never dream of opening Public Law  or the Ecc LJ – assuming, that is, that they’d ever heard of them – so we’d better do our best to meet their needs. If a subject like law and religion is worth studying at all, surely it shouldn’t be reduced merely to a technical conversation between specialists, however important that conversation may be.

But what blogging is emphatically not is your very own, self-edited journal. It’s first thoughts, not mature reflection – so don’t expect to get quoted in hard-copy publications; although a couple of our posts have appeared in the Ecc LJ they did so in a much-extended form. And don’t think that if you write utter drivel people will still read it merely because it’s free and easy to get hold of; remember that when writing on the Graffiti Wall of Death, as soon you press the “Publish” button your thoughts are exposed to a wide of range of expert (and non-expert but often equally valid) opinion.

So, in conclusion, we don’t think that blogs and academic journals will be an “either/or” option for very much longer, and now is a good time to start; our guess is that more and more academics and practitioners will get into serious blogging. A recent example has been Musings, Memories and Miscellanea, the blog of Sir Henry Brooke, former Vice-President of the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal. And if it’s good enough for him…

DP & FC

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Cite this article as: David Pocklington & Frank Cranmer, “Writing on the ‘graffiti wall of death’ – the role of an academic blog” in Law & Religion UK, 7 May 2016, http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2016/05/07/writing-on-the-graffiti-wall-of-death-the-role-of-an-academic-blog/.

5 thoughts on “Writing on the “graffiti wall of death” – the role of an academic blog

  1. Keep up the good work. I find the explanation and comment on Civil and Common Law which involves religion most useful. I have little or no interest in Canon Law but that is easily skipped. Since I am a member of the National Secular Society this is, for me, rather a matter of “know the enemy” but I couldn’t wish for a more civilised and intelligent “enemy”.

    • Alan, you’re too kind! Equally, we couldn’t wish for a more civilised and intelligent correspondent: theological presumptions (or lack of them) are neither here nor there.

      Frank

  2. I think that your blog is essential (and interesting) reading. I receive the updates via email and those links are then saved in case I want to refer back to any of them.

    As I’m training for Licensed Lay Ministry, in the third year, we have a module on Engagement of Religion in the Public Square – and blogs such as yours and those that you’ve published links to, will probably be featured in the assignments via me citing them where appropriate to the course material.

    Keep up the good work, I know that my incumbent also reads your posts, and we sometimes have occasion to discuss issues raised as part of supervision. All grist to the learning process.

    • Thank you! Oddly enough, it was training for licensed lay ministry (except in my day we were just called readers) that got me into this in the first place. I had to do an essay for the doctrine module on a current problem confronting the Church and one of the options was Establishment. I did it because it seemed the least uninteresting alternative – and I ended up writing 8,000 words. Parts of it got dumped into my subsequent STh dissertation then, after finishing that, I was hooked and I went to Cardiff to do the LLM.

      Even as a Quaker Unitarian heretic, I’ll never cease to be grateful to my reader training: partly because I learned how to engage with theology in the wider sense and partly because it was directly because of it that I’m doing what I do now.

      Best wishes

      Frank

  3. Pingback: Law and religion round-up – 8th May | Law & Religion UK

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