Nick Jones

Online participation in this year’s general election is certain to set a new bench mark for the web’s influence on political debate but the British blogosphere will be hard pressed to match the impact achieved in the campaigning for and against President Obama.

Unlike the USA, where television and radio are dominant news providers along with the internet, Britain has a powerful national press which regularly calls the shots and commands the news agenda.   Much of the traffic generated by blogs and social networking sites is a response to the storylines of the daily papers and it still tends to be the press rather than the web which retains the clout to transform online chatter into mainstream news.  While the established media can only observe what is said on the internet – and has no control over where an argument might end up – the framework for much of the online debate is shaped by the dedication and ingenuity of journalists and not by the bloggers who are more likely feed off their work.  John Terry’s failed attempt to prevent the News of the World publishing allegations about an extra-marital affair was the latest illustration of the continuing power of the press proprietors to drive a story forward. Online gossip about his private life had long been an irritation for the England captain, as it is for other Premier League players and managers, but once Terry was targeted by the Murdoch press the story gained traction and was immediately picked up by the rest of the media, which in turn triggered a flood of comment on sites and forums for football fans.   Terry’s humiliation in the tabloids is a mirror image of the experience of countless politicians who have been caught in the eye of media feeding frenzies; it is also a reminder of the damage which well-timed revelations can do to the reputation of a political party. In the long run-up to the 1997 general election, when the press turned against John Major, stories about ‘sleaze’ dominated the agenda and the Conservatives imploded in the face of newspapers disclosures about extra-marital affairs, cash for questions and splits over Europe. Come the 2010 general election today’s online army of political activists is unlikely to be offered anything like same array of sensational stories but by the same token the national newspapers have no intention of being sidelined by the blogosphere. Agenda-setting political stories – often backed up by video interviews – are a sure fire winner for the weekend press. Newspapers like the Mail on Sunday have a well-established track record in delivering exclusives. Lord Levy’s claim that Tony Blair is convinced Gordon Brown cannot beat David Cameron was timed to cause maximum embarrassment for Labour. Britain’s highly-politicised national press might not be as powerful as it once was but Conservative campaign headquarters will be waiting anxiously to see what anti-Cameron stories the Daily Mirror has in its locker, just as Labour will be in fear of a rampant pro-Conservative Sun.     END