Nick Jones
Campaign managers for the general elections of 2001 and 2005 were forced to take account of the impact which the 24-hour television news channels began to exercise over the daily political agenda, a process of readjustment which looks like speeding up yet again due to the influence of bloggers and the expanding audio-visual output of newspaper websites. Next month’s elections to the European Parliament will be an important curtain raiser for the British general election expected no later than May 2010.  Party strategists will also get their first chance to assess the effect on electioneering of the interaction provided by political websites and the swift move into online broadcasting by much of the national press.      Labour are braced for a good kicking at the ballot box and if, as seems almost certain, the European and local elections do attract a significant protest vote, it could be a pivotal moment for newspapers like the Sun as they calculate the timing of what looks like an inevitable shift from backing Labour and a return to supporting the Conservatives. Judging by the steady stream of agenda-setting exclusive stories and tales of covert preferential access, Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers still have a productive -- if not entirely friendly – relationship with Gordon Brown and his cabinet colleagues.   In the midst of the credit crunch, at a time when there is so much at stake over changes to the rules on media ownership and the future shape of broadcasting, no media company would dare take the risk of playing fast and loose with the government of the day. But when it comes to the cut and thrust of daily politics all the tell-tale signs point to a warm and rapidly-developing love-in between David Cameron and the Murdoch press.   The Conservatives’ pledge to stop the “endless passage of powers” from Westminster to Brussels chimes perfectly with the Sun’s virulent anti-European agenda, just one of the many platforms which Cameron had a free hand to exploit as the first guest on SunTalk, News International’s new online radio station which was launched last week. (20.4.2009) Sun columnist and shock-jock Jon Gaunt, who was sacked by TalkSport last November after he accused a local councillor of being a “Nazi”, could hardly have been any kinder to the Conservative leader who, as Gaunt reminded his listeners, was now “so close to power”. To the credit of SunTalk -- billed as “the home of free speech” – there was no shortage of hard-hitting questions but Gaunt did invite callers to put their questions to “the next Prime Minister”.   And the Sun’s supporting cast of celebrity correspondents and columnists, which was led by Ian McGarry (“good morning, Prime Minister”), included Trevor Kavanagh and his successor as political editor, George Pascoe-Watson, who both delivered a pretty damning critique of Labour’s management of the economy. SunTalk’s opening show was a vivid illustration of the kind of partisan broadcasting which the national newspapers are free to develop, without any of the restraints regarding political balance and impartiality which Ofcom requires mainstream public service broadcasters to observe. Indeed News International’s online expansion does underline the mounting evidence of a matching perspective not only on the political front but also a policy agenda which Murdoch and Cameron share over the future development of the broadcasting industry. In a series of policy initiatives during the last twelve months, which have all been welcomed by Murdoch’s executives, the Conservatives have said: + Newspaper websites which in future develop digital channels should be freed from the rules on political impartiality which govern broadcasters in receipt of public funds. + Rules on cross media ownership should be relaxed. + Restrictions on product placement in television programmes should be re-considered. + Self-regulation of newspapers and their online content under the supervision of the Press Complaints Commission continues to have the Conservatives’ full support. + The BBC should “lead by example” by freezing the licence fee for a year. Election strategists should not underestimate the rapidly-evolving influence of the online output of newspapers and their ability to upstage the established television and radio services.   Complaints about police brutality during the G20 demonstrations became headline news when first The Guardian and then The Sunday Times posted videos which showed officers caught in the act of hitting protestors.  In recent months both the Sun and the News of the World have also dictated the news agenda with a series of intrusive videos, a foretaste of the way in which sensational footage of politicians misbehaving -- caught perhaps on mobile phones or cctv -- might end up online and give party managers a fright come next election. Given the way the political blogger Guido Fawkes grabbed the headlines for seven days with his revelations about the scandalous emails between Damian McBride and Derek Draper, there is every likelihood that uncontrolled or unsubstantiated outpourings in the blogosphere could well upset carefully-planned timetables for election campaigning. Draper was correct in his original assessment: the Labour Party does have a massive hole to fill if it is to find a way of matching the commanding presence which bloggers on the right have succeeded in establishing online. While Gordon Brown was rightly in the frame for having lost control of special advisers like McBride and for having overlooked the implications of allowing Labour to develop a gossipy website like RedRag, Cameron too has some questions to answer. How does the leader of the Opposition intend to deal with the suspicion that the Conservatives have found a neat way to keep their attack dogs at arms length from Tory Central Office by encouraging them to put the boot in via the blogosphere. Will the Conservatives give an assurance that they will refrain in the future from seeking to exploit unsubstantiated claims about the personal and family lives of politicians when they appear on political websites and when there is no other form of corroboration? In a presentation to the Hansard Society in March, explaining the purpose of LabourList, Draper predicted that in the thirty days of the next general election campaign, there was every possibility that for “three or four days” at least the news would be dominated by stories which started in the blogosphere. His prediction could hardly have been more prescient: the McBride-Draper tale of smears and intrigue, which originated on the Guido Fawkes site, dominated the entire Easter holiday and the rest of the following week. More is the pity that the two of them did not think through the implications of what they were embarking upon. With the assistance of students at Sheffield University I am hoping to monitor and assess whether the online television and radio output of newspaper websites does have any effect on the political agenda during next month’s European parliamentary elections.  I want to see if original and exclusive online stories do influence mainstream news coverage.   After observing some distinctly partisan online reporting during the 2008 Crewe and Nantwich by-election, my hunch is that the internet and the freedom online to break risky exclusives, will have a far greater impact on campaigning than either Labour or the Liberal Democrats have realised. Hunger for power helped the Democrats build up a commanding digital presence in the US presidential election and Britain’s experience so far is that it is the right rather than left which is way out in front in the world of online politics. (First published in Tribune, 1.5.2009)