I was asked by my old paper, the Sunday Herald, to reflect on the non-appearance of the Internet Election in the UK's current political drama - and the resurgence of the Television Election. Never enough time, or resources, to address these issues properly - but it's still fun to gather together your thoughts for a Sunday morning performance (here's the paper copy, below is unedited version). All comments welcome.
This was the Television Election (but the Internet one is still to come)
Sunday Herald Essay
2 May 2010
By Pat Kane
"Bigotgate" may well have brought the career of Kirkaldy's grumpiest son to a Shakespearean, character-fated end. But it's not the first time that a well-produced tv clip, featuring a solid and redoubtable working-class lady, has seized the nation's voters.
Before Gillian Duffy with her red lapels, of course, there was Susan Boyle in her knitted twinset. Granted, SuBo's homely (though exquisitely edited) defiance of the powers-that-be resulted in one victorious plebiscite after another - not to mention considerable direct payments to Chancellor Cowell's private treasury. But who knows what wild storms of democratic upheaval Mrs Duffy's perfect montage has unleashed?
Yes, both clips were thunderously amplified by the vast echo-chamber and copy-machine that is the internet. But as the nations of these islands once more gathered round the flat-screened hearth on Thursday night – this time to watch the slow decomposition of a middle-aged Scotsman, live on BBC 1 – there is a moment of truth coming for some of us surf-monkeys. Despite all the cyber-predictions, from YouTube this to Twitter that, 2010 has become not the Internet Election, but the Television Election (and maybe even the Newspaper Election).
With some irony, all the stats on this are readily available in the blogosphere. Last Thursday's BBC debate was slightly down on ITV – but the average over all three was 8.094 million viewers, a 31.1% audience share. By comparison, according to a March survey, Twitter has 132,000 UK users per day – slightly less than the circulation of the Independent – and only one in five of those are defined as 'active'. Another survey notes only 45% of MPs have a Twitter account, and their average number of followers is 614 (the average UK constituency, by the way, is 74,000 registered voters).
Numbers don't capture the quality of the interaction, of course: and in places the Net has been both useful and fun in this election. Websites have been hacked together to allow surfers to lampoon the more egregious of political posters. Voter registration organised through Facebook racked up 450,000 downloads before the deadline.
And when the Tory press turned on Nick Clegg after his showing in the first debate, social networkers responded with ironic Twitter crazes like “#nickcleggsfault” (where he was blamed for everything from volcanic ash to venereal disease), or the 150,000 strong Facebook group “We got Rage Against the Machine to #1, we can get the Lib Dems into office!” If the majority of the estimated 1 million extra vote registrations do turn out to be younger voters, the Net will have played its organising part.
But the reality is that cyberspace has only been an amplification of the main event. And that was 270 minutes of advert-free, quietly parliamentary talk TV, conducted between six middle-aged blokes in suits (including the hosts), fielding carefully polished questions from well-behaved citizens. If this was the X-Factorisation of British politics, these were three extremely dull versions of the game-show. No oohs and aahs from a banner-waving, braying crowd; no buzzer-pressing potentates giving their instant, risible assessments; and as for the performers, each of them was a steady hoofer - no over-adventurous wailings, no missed dance-steps or styling disasters.
At the very least, we can hope that the success of these restrained formats will restrain Cowell's stated ambition to extend his format to political debate. (The Tick-Factor on capital punishment is one I'd particularly like to avoid). And we should remember that the debate comes only months after the BBC's own controversial Question Time episode, where the BNP's Nick Griffin was brought into the heart of a mature and sophisticated institution of political television.
Griffin was meticulously disassembled live on air, by a panel that was in general a credit to the diversity and intelligence of public life on these islands. It would be a delight if the success of these debates meant a minor revolution for television itself - where jaded tv execs might now see a ratings-and-commercial opportunity for the patient exposition of policy options on prime-time television. I'm not holding my breath.
Yet while the Gillian Duffy incident was never explicitly referenced on the Thursday night debate – no-one wishing to seem vindictive towards the grey-skinned PM, as the telegenic logic dictates – it represents the darker potential of television's restored status as mediator of the national conversation. And by implication, the Net's weakness before, and dependency on, old media.
In the way that the expenses scandal was a triumph of old-fashioned source-based print journalism, “Bigotgate” was tv news at its most powerful: fleet-footed but organised, quickly turning a drab event into a killer story.
As you compulsively watch the Duffy news items on the web, pulled together from the media's own Truman-Show-like omnipresence on the campaign trail, you witness something more in the thick of it than The Thick Of It could ever be.
The all-seeing eyes and ears of real-time television catches the kind of on-stage, off-stage hypocrisy that is the most perfect self-destruction in an age of personality politics. And the journos did their job superbly well: chasing Mrs Duffy down the road to get her reaction shot, snatching the camera feed in a radio studio as Brown was lost in his own private hell, stitching it all together as a coherent two minute epic of one man's meltdown.
What was the role of the Net in the face of this brilliant, doubtless award-winning moment of broadcast-news professionalism? A passive parasite, mostly. Copying it, sharing it, maybe eventually belching up a Downfall-style mashup. But essentially the Net's role will be to install this perfectly destructive reputation-bomb into the collective memory of our digital hive-mind. I hold no brief for Brown or New Labour, but I did shudder on his behalf. A confluence of old and new media effectively ripped his human integrity apart on the broadest possible stage; a tragedy now permanently available to anyone with a will to Google his emptiness.
Even when television isn't in love with the brutal arts of montage, editing and voice-over, and just sticks like a live-to-air limpet to its political target, the effect is just as humanly corrosive. And the Net can just be a supine mediator. While doing some professional chores last week, I sat watching one of those very “walkabout” live feeds – on my wifi laptop, naturally – which did Brown in. This time it was the sainted Eurocrat Clegg, swishing about some industrial hangar or other, joshing with apprentices.
I don't think I've ever seen such a flesh-crawling example of that old sociological classic, the presentation of self in everyday life. Clegg wore his populist identity as awkwardly as the plastic armour of a Star Wars trooper, all chafing edges and black calculation beneath.
Watch too much of this stuff, and you could easily get extremely depressed. It seems like a perfect demonstration that, in an age where every occupation is “performance reviewed” on the stage of the service economy, the very mechanics of character are buckling and coming apart. It could be that our recent glee in showing the bullshit that cakes our MPs and representatives is a kind of displaced disgust at our own increasing artificiality. Pull them down as grafting, self-interested, speak-your-script robots, so that we don't have concede that too much of our own lives is lived under the same conditions of venality and fakery.
To me, it's no surprise that the coin which has probably pushed Brown over the edge of the political arcade-game was a supreme moment of reality tv. Stay with me, but I think there's a deep continuity here between Thatcher, New Labour and the possible coming Cameronism. Remember her famous dictum: “economics is only the method - the object is to change the soul”. For New Labour, bureaucracy was the method to change the soul – all that cheesy, second-hand managerialism that dominated public services, with its plethora of micro-managed targets and prescriptions.
The cultural expression of this was the rise of what I've called a “television of manners”: everything from Big Brother to Supernanny to Wife Swap to Jamie Oliver and his various culinary missionary positions ... No corner of our affective lives has been free from the surveillance of our so-called behavioural betters (whether in lifestyle television or under CCTV in the streets). Brown caught out as a Fabianesque, prole-sniffing fake proves that if you live by the Truman Show, you die by the Truman Show.
The New Tories, with their love of "nudge" thinking and liberal paternalism, will be picking up this baton with great enthusiasm (after all, they started it). Going by the foul intolerance of anything other than a Gradgrind work ethic in the last debate, the new Toryism will now be behaviour-control minus any funding to soften the social ordering-around. No doubt, at some point over the next few years, the Etonian suprematism of the Cameronites will viciously break through the pleasant surface of their media management. And no doubt Web 2.0 will play some part in digging up the truffles that indicate their innate sense of privilege.
But I think the televisuality of politics at the moment may be pointing to something more profoundly, structurally worrying: the unravelling of the legitimacy of almost all kinds of public representation. When too many people start to think that democracy itself is a con, perhaps even a rigged game show, then we will be in real, and familiar, trouble.
It would be nice at this point to be able to turn back towards internet idealism. You know the story: the one that says this is a medium which can revive the democratic spirit, that can make active and engaged those who are currently passive and entranced. Well, possibly. As social media expert Joanne Jacobs says, the staid parameters of political television obviously restricts the kind of questions the public can ask of politicians – never mind what politicians can ask of each other. (The failure to construct even one debate that could encompass the constitutional diversity of the United Kingdom will surely come to haunt the British broadcasting authorities)
But those questions, says Jacobs, “can be taken online to blogs, forums and social-networking-oriented conversations. This is where the internet has its power; the 'last mile' of political manoeuvering for the digitally connected is happening between friends and connections online. And voters are still more likely to value the opinion of those they feel they know over the rhetoric of televised debates.”
We saw a little example of this strategy from the Scottish political blog Bella Caledonia. Over the last few weeks, they started a successful campaign to ensure that the phrase “scotlandspeaks” was the most popular “trending topic” on Twitter during each of the leaders' tv debates. There is a growing determination among the Scottish “NatRoots” (to adopt the American term from the last few Democratic campaigns), that activists should stop bemoaning the media, and start becoming the media.
It's all-too-possible that the SNP won't hold any negotiating cards in a hung parliament, in which repatriation of broadcast and media powers to Holyrood might have been some part of the deal. It was fun to watch Salmond do his usual sonsy performance on the Question Time panel after the last BBC debate - but he did seem like a moaning wannabe at the big new table of top-down political television. Perhaps he needs to be reminded of his own radical commitment a few years ago: that Scottish media reform should be about building an “architecture of participation” in the country – not just getting your appointed slot in a spectacle of authority.
But waiting for the top tables to shove the seats over and give your bum the warmth of power is perhaps not just a waste of time, but also a misdirection of whatever popular political energies you're trying to channel. If the uber-televising of politics has the unintended consequence of making us ever more grouchy and despairing about the very idea of politics itself, then perhaps the powers of social media may yet really come into their own. Vigorously pursued in Scotland, internet tools might enable a peer-to-peer conversation between friends, family and colleagues about our political futures – a 'networked' rather than 'national' conversation that might have even more unpredictable and emergent results than the appearance of one shiny new face in the old Punch and Judy show of political television.
In short, the Internet Election might not have turned up this time. But it might well overturn the next time.