Walking into the brilliantly white reception of the New Statesman’s Blackfriars office was like entering a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey. An entire wall was covered by TV and computer monitors, displaying an array of news channels. New media technology is definitely upon us. Jon Bernstein, former Multimedia Editor at Channel 4 News and deputy editor of New Statesman, agrees.
With the onset of the political leaders’ TV debates in the UK, I wondered if all this ‘new media’ lark really mattered in politics. Will the televised debates simply be like watching another inconsequential episode of X-Factor where, to extend the comparison, each leader is singing the same old uninspired tune?
“It’s entirely possible”, says Jon. “There’s always the danger that after about half an hour of the first one, people will literally switch off, never to switch back on. In fact, the only time they do switch back on is if someone alerts them to an enormous gaffe.”
He explains that because the politicians are acutely aware that it’s just as likely that a gaffe will be the main headline as some winning argument around a piece of policy, it engenders a sense of conservatism about what the politicians say. “What starts out as something that is potentially quite heavy going and turgid turns into something that is incredibly turgid and boring because no one wants to make a mistake.”
The 2008 US presidential TV debates: ‘The low point of the whole year’
Jon argues that the debates between John McCain and Barak Obama in 2008 are an example of this. “The low point of the whole year was those debates. There was a bit of churlishness from McCain, and plenty of wonkery from Obama, but it wasn’t a great watch for anybody but the really political aficionados.”
So is there something fundamentally wrong with TV as a podium for political debate? As Jon sees it, “there’s nothing inherent in TV that makes it a dull platform. If you witness some of the best TV interviews that Jon Snow does on Channel 4 News or Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight – that is really compelling politics on the TV. Why? Because it is confrontational in nature; that makes interesting TV, and that makes politicians honest”.
The problem with these debates is that there are incredibly complex guide lines which foster very little real interaction between the politicians. “Whether it’s Alistair Stuart for ITV, Adam Boulton for Sky, or David Dimbleby for the BBC – these guys aren’t going to be really confrontational as they could be”.
“TV can do it”, Jon reassures me. It’s just the setup of the leaders debates is not the way to go about it.
Even so, in an age of ‘freedom of speech’, the selective coverage of only the three main parties doesn’t really seem fair. However, Jon highlights the counter-argument. “Maybe it should just be between David Cameron and Gordon Brown because Nick Clegg doesn’t stand a chance of becoming the leader. You could say, actually, it should be less, not more.”
‘A lot of what happens on Twitter and Facebook is preaching to the converted’
I asked Jon whether he thinks that the internet is, instead, the main platform for providing marginal parties with exposure. “The mistake people make about new media”, he clarifies, “is seeing it in mass broadcasting terms; the one-to-many communication. In fact, the internet is about many-to-many conversations between like minded people. So a lot of what happens on Twitter and Facebook is, if you like, preaching to the converted.”
As I learn, most people get their politics mediated through the telly and newspapers. “The internet isn’t going to harm the electoral chances of these smaller parties. But I’m not convinced it’s going to increase their chances either.”
‘Politicians absolutely should bother with the internet’
Jon also thinks that the “people who use new media more creatively are the insurgents: the people that don’t have the power.” In the Bush years, it was the left that led the way in new media with sites like MoveOn.org. “The people first to the blogosphere in UK politics”, such as Paul Stains and Tim Montgomery, “were all right-of-centre – in a sense, they were the insurgents”.
An interesting twist on this, however, is that the broader left has now got its act together. This is because, having been behind in the polls, “now they feel like the underdog.”
E-petitions, pioneered by Number 10 a few years ago, were an “interesting experiment”, Jon tells me. “But the stuff that really caught light was things like Jeremy Clarkson for PM. It’s fun, but doesn’t necessarily deliver on engagement and transparency.”
As for the promised data deluge of online government statistics: “are they going to pick and choose what they make available? Of course they are.” While Jon recognises that the direction of travel is positive, and that politicians “absolutely should bother with the internet”, he’s not convinced it’s a revolution in the way politics works.
In Space Odyssey, Dr. Bowman bravely pulls the plug on ship’s defective on-board computer HAL 9000. Fanaticising a little, I wondered what difference it would make to the election if you pulled the plug on the internet. Referring back to his previous point, Jon tells me that it would be political organisation, rather than broadcasting, that would suffer. “But then again, in the 2014 election we’ll probably look back and think people were getting excited about some pretty trivial things.”
The televised debates are 90 minutes each, aired on ITV, SKY and the BBC, at 8.30pm – 10.00pm on Thursdays April 15 and 22, and Wednesday April 29. They are themed: covering domestic, foreign, and economic policy respectively.