Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website
German politicians have much to learn from the unprecedented level of online engagement during the British general election of May 2010 and the American Presidential and mid-term elections.  In a lecture in Berlin to the Deutsch-Britische Gesellschaft (17.11.2010), Nicholas Jones said that online discussion of politics came of age during the British election.  He was convinced that German political engagement via the internet will have the same unpredictable results in the run to up to the Bundestag elections in 2013.   I have an apology to make: my last visit to Berlin was way back in 1976.  That is a shocking admission bearing in mind that my associations with West Berlin -- as it was then known -- were not insignificant.  In the subsequent years my trips and holidays to Germany have not brought me here, a mistake I am now belatedly putting right. My first visit – back in the mid 1960s – was especially memorable for an impressionable young journalist.  I arrived at the former Tempelhof Airport as a guest of the United States Air Force.  At the time I was a local evening newspaper reporter in Oxford, close to the American base at Upper Heyford.  My visit was on a facility trip for the British news media, to help the Oxfordshire communities around the air base to understand the role of American planes patrolling and defending the air corridor to West Berlin. I can still see in my mind’s eye the bright lights and neon signs of the shops along the Kurfurstendamm.  I could tell my American hosts were keen to display it as a beacon of commercial enterprise which was flourishing deep inside East Germany.  In one of those odd coincidences of life my closest colleague a decade later – when I worked on a BBC local radio station serving the city of Leicester – was the son of the last British governor of Spandau Prison.  My friend Eddie Vickers, whose father had been responsible for the custody of Rudolf Hess, spent much of his early childhood living in West Berlin during those immediate post-war years.  Perhaps not surprisingly Eddie, with his excellent command of the German language, was promoted to become the BBC’s Berlin representativeHe was more than just a BBC news correspondent – reporting, for example, on the cold war, cloak-and-dagger spy swaps out at the Glienicke Bridge – he was also part diplomat, having to represent the BBC during all those time-consuming meetings and negotiations which were part and parcel of the four-power agreement under which West Berlin was administered. For my second visit in 1976 I was accompanied by my wife and two children. We stayed at Eddie’s impressive residence in the woods around Teufelsberg and marvelled at the way a mountain had been created out of the wartime rubble of Berlin.  We crossed into East Berlin one day through the wall at Check Point Charlie.  We also went of course out to the Glienicke Bridge.  And as you can imagine we all went shopping on the Kurfustendamm and were wowed by the sumptuous goods on display at KaDeWe. Indeed we still use a KaDeWe kitchen knife to this day. But I doubt I would be able to get a replacement past today’s airport security.  Now, twenty five years later I am here as your guest and my final association is one which takes me from the past to the present and forward to the future and to my topic for this evening’s lecture. My father was the editor of the local evening newspaper at Wolverhampton in West Midlands.  He was well respected within the British journalistic community for helping train and enthuse the journalists of tomorrow. In the 1970s and 80s he was a regular lecturer at training sessions held here in Berlin for journalists from developing countries in the third world.  He spoke frequently at courses organised by the newspaper publisher Axel Springer, yet another illustration of Berlin’s determination at the time to look outwards during the difficult years of a divided Germany.  My father would have been touched to think that you had invited his son to speak about our shared interest in the development of the news media. Because make no mistake the new media of today are playing an ever growing part in shaping the outcome of elections around the world.  I would go as far as to suggest that an online insurgency contributed to the doubts and uncertainty which resulted in there being no overall winner of the British general election last May. More than ever political parties and their leaders are at the mercy political activists exploiting the internet. That indecisive election result – what we call a hung Parliament -- led to the formation of our first post-war coalition government under the Premiership of David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, together with  the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats.  Coalition government is a new experience for the Britain of today.  Of course the unprecedented level of online engagement that we saw in Britain via the internet was hardly a surprise after what happened in the 2008 Presidential election in the United States.  It was President Obama’s success in mobilising an army of mainly young online supporters which helped to propel him to victory.  And it was the emergence this year of another phenomenon, the Tea Party, which proved so debilitating for Obama in the US mid-term elections earlier this month. The mainly middle-aged to elderly men and women who make up the Tea Party – and who tend to be concentrated in small town America – were fired up by the right-wing television network Fox News. But again it was the inspired marshalling of their support via the social networking sites which proliferate on the internet which proved so deadly for President Obama and gave added potency to their opposition to his policies.  Very early on the mid-term elections, the do-it-yourself activists in the Tea Party used blogs and social networking sites like Twitter to build up an email list of 400,000 supporters. Impressive though that was, it was insignificant compared with the massive email list of thirteen million names established in 2008 via websites like  Three million donated money to his campaign on line.Out political parties did not hit anything like those figures but undoubtedly online participation came of age in the UK during our 2010 general election.  And, I would venture to suggest that if British and American experience is anything to go by that come your next election for the German Bundestag in 2013 the role of new media will be even more decisive.  What was so encouraging about our election was the increased interaction between potential voters and the revived interest in politics which the internet helped to generate. The overall turnout was up from 61 per cent of all voters in the 2005 election to 65 per cent of the electorate in 2010.  And what was especially encouraging was the turnout among 18-24 year olds was up seven per cent on 2005.  One in four 18-24 year olds posted election-related comments online on social net working sites, a much greater degree of participation than many had predicted. There was what I called this online insurgency. What we did not see in the United Kingdom was a repeat by the British political parties of the success of Obama’s election team in using the internet as a campaign tool to register supporters and raise campaign funds.   Instead what we saw was political activists who were out with the main political structures dictating the pace online. That is precisely what also happened this autumn in the United States with supporters of the Tea Party who were challenging the Republican Party machine from within and who mobilised support for Sarah Palin and other Tea Party celebrities.  Activists are now capable of using the internet to drive campaigns forward in unexpected directions over which the party leaderships have no control.  A vivid illustration of this in the UK was the way in which online graffiti artists defaced political posters and party images. The most mocked image of the 2010 campaign was a Conservative Party poster showing an air-brushed image of David Cameron with the slogan: “We can’t go on like this. I’ll cut the deficit, not the NHS”.  This poster campaign was designed to hit all the right political right buttons for the Conservatives.The message was straight forward: there needed to be a change of government, which would cut back on public spending but save the National Health Service. Needless to say graffiti artists had other ideas and they had endless fun rewriting the slogan. There was one website devoted solely to displaying the best examples of the defaced poster.  Political advertising is now at risk of immediate public ridicule and the internet has provided a platform which can give a defaced poster a far wider audience than the original image would ever have achieved on its own. An online insurgency can now outwit – and even humiliate -- the political manipulators.  David Cameron’s favourite was the work of an Elvis Presley loving vandal who gave the Conservative leader a new hairdo and came up one of the wittiest rewrites: “We can’t go on like this. With suspicious minds”.   Cameron’s smooth skin, as depicted on the air brushed poster, prompted the cartoonist Steve Bell -- who works for Britain’s Guardian newspaper -- to put Cameron’s head inside a male contraceptive sheath – just one of the indignities which the British Prime Minister continues to have to endure.  Lovers of German cars will be encouraged to learn that the Conservative Party leader fared much better when the Labour Party superimposed his picture on the bonnet of an Audi Quattro alongside the slogan: “Don’t let him take Britain back to the 1980s”.   During the decade of Margaret Thatcher, a red Quattro was the car driven by a politically-incorrect detective in a popular BBC television series Ashes to Ashes.  The detective’s cry – when he had a fresh lead in a case – was “Fire up the Quattro” and the Conservatives re-worked the poster to say “Fire up the Quattro.  It’s time for change”. Whenever one of the political parties brought out a new poster, young people all over the country got to work rubbishing the message.  And there is no denying, it did engage and involve an age group which frequently take no notice of politicians and the policies which the parties are promoting. Where new media and especially social networking sites like Twitter really came into play, was in following through the reaction to our first- ever televised debates between the party leaders. Only a matter of a few weeks ago it was the fiftieth anniversary of the first American Presidential televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon.  British electors had always been deprived of such confrontations because there was no compulsion: if the Prime Minister of the Day or Leader of the Opposition considered they were in the strongest position they simply turned down the invitation.  Tony Blair always refused; so did Margaret Thatcher.  But Prime Minister John Major, in a weak position after eighteen years of Conservative government, said ‘Yes’ in 1997 only for Blair to say ‘No’. And likewise Prime Minister Gordon Brown – fearing defeat -- said ‘Yes’ at the start of this year.  We all expected the Conservative leader to say ‘No’.  But David Cameron stuck to his long-standing promise to take part in a pre-election televised debate and surprisingly he agreed that the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg could also take part. So we had the novelty of preparing for three live debates to be held between the three party leaders.  Brown and Cameron were very much influenced by the conduct of the American debates. They did not expect to be outflanked by an outsider.Clegg, leader of the much smaller Liberal Democrats, was a natural on television, up against a slick but nervous Cameron and a grumpy Prime Minister.  Clegg played to perfection his role as the fresh-faced challenger offering voters the chance to break free from the ‘two tired old parties who have been running things for years’.   Neither Prime Minister nor Leader of the Opposition had a clue how to respond to an upstart who kept reminding viewers that only Liberal Democrats offered a real alternative to voting Labour or Conservative. They each ended up saying ‘I agree with Nick’ on several occasions. While the first debate was still on air, Clegg’s appeal immediately began to register in messages on social networking sites; the enthusiastic response on Twitter alerted journalists to what they soon dubbed ‘Cleggmania’.  ‘Enter the Outsider’ was headline next morning on the front page of The Times (16.4.2010) after the first debate; its picture inside showed how Clegg, on the outside of the screen, could easily point an accusing finger at the other two. The papers were unanimous: ‘Clegg seizes his moment’ (The Guardian, 16.4.2010); ‘Clegg’s star rises in great TV showdown’ (Daily Telegraph, 16.4.2010). Clegg’s performance sent shockwaves through the Conservatives. The following day The Guardian’s front page captured this sense of surprise: ‘Knives out for Nick Clegg after dramatic poll boost’.  Another linked phenomenon in the election was the number of instant opinion polls, again facilitated by the internet.  Instead of the fifty opinion polls in the four weeks of the 2005 general election, we had nearly five hundred, most of them daily opinion polls, conducted via the internet.  By the Sunday after the first debate the previous Thursday  the opinion surveys reflected the enthusiasm shown in the online reaction.One opinion poll put the Liberal Democrats on 32 per cent, the Conservatives on 31 per cent and the Labour trailing on 28 per cent, a complete reversal of previous findings. ‘Clegg nicks the top spot’ said the Mail on Sunday (18.4.2010).  But on the inside pages we had the first real taste of the demolition job which the Conservative-supporting newspapers were about to launch. The headline might have sounded supportive: ‘For first time in 104 years Lib Dems are in the lead’.  But the Mail – known by journalists as the Daily Hate – could not wait to get its teeth into a pro-European like Clegg.He was once a Member of the much criticised European Parliament.  The Mail asked: ‘Is there anything British about Lib Dem leader? His wife is Spanish, his mother Dutch, his father half-Russian and his spin doctor German’.   Alongside was a picture of his press spokeswoman, ‘German Lena Pietsch’ who it transpired had the audacity to speak in German to Clegg when they thought they might be in earshot of journalists. You might agree that perhaps there is no surer way to outwit the tabloid reporters of Britain than to speak in a foreign tongue.  But the attempt to demonise Ms Pietsch was merely a foretaste of what the Daily Mail had in store.  “Clegg in Nazi slur Britain” said the thundering headline a few days later (Daily Mail, 22.4.2010). Most journalists – perhaps the public as well – were left scratching their heads once they tried to sort out the Daily Mail’s logic. The paper had dug up a long-lost speech by Clegg in which he suggested Britain’s delusions of grandeur at winning the war were a greater cross to bear than German guilt over the Nazis.  He argued that Britain needed to be put back in its place.  Many Brits would probably privately agree with Clegg; Britain does bore the rest of Europe by continually harking back to World War II. But it was the association of the word ‘Nazi’ with ‘Clegg’ which was designed to wound. I don’t know whether it was Lena Pietsch who helped conjure up Clegg’s soundbite in response but it certainly captured the mood of the moment. One opinion poll had indicated that Clegg was the most popular party leader in Britain since Winston Churchill and in his rebuttal he turned that finding to his advantage, saying: ‘I am the first politician who has gone from being Churchill to being a Nazi in under a week...I hope people won’t be bullied frightened by it’. There was an instant wave of support for Clegg on political websites and online chat rooms but the downside was that he could hardly repeat his stunning debut in the two subsequent televised debates. The following week The Times declared it was ‘Neck and Neck’ (23.4.2010). The Sun claimed that the Conservative leader was back in the lead; he was the: ‘Cam Back Kid’ (23.4.2010).  Notice the opinion poll: Cameron on 36 per cent, Clegg 32 per cent, Brown 29 per cent.It was an online survey taken during the night of the debate by the pollsters YouGov who insist that their online sample are properly weighted to reflect the makeup of the electorate at large. What we saw was the newspapers using instant online assessments to claw back their influence; they could not control the debates, but could influence the way they were presented to their readers.  It was another illustration of the way the internet has altered the dynamics of news reporting.  After the final debate, the papers seemed to be in agreement: ‘Cameron wins third leg’ (Guardian, 30.4.2010); ‘Cameron on the money’ (Daily Telegraph, 30.4.2010). Perhaps the outcome was not so surprising given the disaster which befell Prime Minister Gordon Brown the day before the broadcast.  ‘Bigotgate’ was the episode which attracted countless hits on YouTube and finally sealed Brown’s fate.  The use of the word ‘gate’ at the end of ‘bigot’ is British newspeak for scandal, harking back to Nixon’s downfall over Watergate. ‘Bigotgate’ was the headline shorthand for the story of an elderly lady Labour supporter who lived in Rochdale and went out to buy a loaf of bread.She was persuaded to shake hands with the Prime Minister who was on a constituency visit and their conversation finished up as the number one hit on YouTube in the roll call of disastrous election encounters.  In her conversation with the Prime Minister, Mrs Duffy voiced the concern of elderly voters across Western Europe: ‘You cannot say anything about the immigrants...all these Eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?’ Brown explained that a million people had arrived in Britain from Europe, but the same number of British people had gone to live and work in Europe. He had clearly been startled by her question and once back in his chauffeur drive car, not realising that he was still wearing a radio microphone, whose signal was being picked up by a nearby television satellite truck, he launched into a tirade against his staff for introducing him to Mrs Duffy.  ‘That was a disaster...Whose idea was that? ... She was just a sort of bigoted woman who said she used to be Labour’.   Television footage of the original encounter and then the shots of Brown, holding his head in despair as his words were played back to him, appeared in television news bulletins around the world.More importantly it had a vast online audience via sites like YouTube. Young people turn to the internet rather than the established television networks and it is a world which the spin doctors cannot control; online insurgents can just as easily tweak an online video as they can deface a political poster and the infamy of ‘Bigotgate’ spread far and wide. The tragedy for Gordon Brown was that on his visit to Rochdale he was without his wife Sarah, who before becoming the mother of their two sons had been a public relations consultant.  She had made it her business to try to humanise her awkward, often bad tempered husband, especially when he was out meeting the people.  If she had been with him that day, she would undoubtedly have charmed Mrs Duffy, the conversation would have been far pleasanter and she would certainly have made sure her husband did not stomp off with his radio microphone still attached to his jacket lapel.  Sarah Brown’s popularity was another illustration of the power of social net working on the internet. At the start of the election campaign she had over a million followers on Twitter, considerably more than the next most popular member of the British Twitterati, the actor Stephen Fry. From the moment her husband entered Downing Street in the summer of 2007, she was determined to present herself as the first First Lady of British politics.  Never before had the spouse of a British Prime Minister made such a determined attempt to promote herself as way of encouraging support for her husband. Like our first US-style Presidential debate, it was another reflection of the Americanisation of British politics. Sarah Brown modelled herself on Michelle Obama and her tweets – those messages in 140 characters – were a snapshot of her daily life, attending world summits, meeting Michelle Obama or perhaps Carla Bruni, wife of President Sarkozy. Her snippets of information were eagerly devoured by the social pages of the newspapers; she went to fashion shows, wrote articles for consumer magazines. Her warmth undoubtedly had great appeal to other women; her political influence could not be ignoredWe are only just beginning to understand the way online discussion and engagement is influencing voters.  There is no doubt in my mind that although the initial boost for the Liberal Democrat leader fell away, the thought that the smaller third party might be able to hold the balance of power did influence the electorate.  People did vote tactically, to punish either the Conservatives or the Labour Party, in the hope perhaps of delivering a hung Parliament, which is precisely what happened.  Clearly political party managers here in Germany, as we have seen in America and Britain, will want to try to understand what is going on. They all want to know the direction of internet chatter as it will alert them to difficult issues ahead. But they will also have to realise they cannot control the freedom of the online world.  There was no doubt that the initial surge in online praise for Nick Clegg influenced the way the televised debates were reported.  Political journalists are desperate for instant reaction – and online opinion pollsters, bloggers and the tweets of commentators and personalities are eminently quotable.In the space of just a few months – since the British general election in May – Twitter has become the biggest single source of new story ideas for Today, the flagship morning current affairs programme on BBC Radio.  During the negotiations in May to form a coalition government, William Hague – now the British foreign secretary – used Twitter to tell journalists what was happening. His example has been followed by countless politicians and celebrities.  With just a few short words they can get a message out direct to the news media and the public. Twitter is rivalling the main news agencies like the Press Association and Reuters.Our newspapers now devote columns giving the newsiest tweets of the day; they get quoted regularly by broadcasters.  Although Nick Clegg could not repeat his earlier highs, there was no doubting that it was the online evidence of support and engagement which so alarmed Labour and the Conservatives.  Of course the downside of Twitter is that hardly a week goes by without a politician or public figure putting their foot in it and saying something which is embarrassing, perhaps libellous or even racist.  In many ways the internet is a new democratic safeguard, because journalists and campaigners can search online to see what politicians have said in the past; there is no hiding place on the world-wide web, as many propagandists are finding to their cost. Finally perhaps I should say a few words about the Prime Minister David Cameron and his acute understanding of the potential of new media.  Cameron is a political apparatchik through and through: on leaving Oxford University in 1988, at the age of twenty two, he started work at the Conservative Party as a political researcher.That was under Margaret Thatcher. He found his feet under her successor John Major. His task was to provide the then Conservative Prime Minister with lines of attack – especially sharp one-line jibes – with which to taunt the then Labour leader, Neil Kinnock at question time in the House of Commons.  Cameron had a natural flair for this, and you can hear it today, he’s never lost for words; he knows just how, in that upper class, educated way, to twist the knife in an opponent, but to do it with a bit of style.  But his other skill is self deprecation.  If challenged about his privileged upbringing, he immediately puts his questioner at ease: ‘Yes, I know, I have this terrible CV, Eton and Oxford...but the Conservative Party of today judges a person on what they can do, what they can achieve’.  In the early 1990s Cameron was a ministerial aide – we call them special advisers – to two former Conservative ministers, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont and the former Home Secretary and later party leader, Michael Howard. He learned the tricks of the trade; he knew how to survive in party politics.He was ready to take a political risk, which helped explain his unprecedented offer to the Liberal Democrats to join the Conservatives in a coalition government. Way back to the days he was fighting for the party leadership, Cameron displayed his ease in front of camera.  He allowed press photographers and television crews unprecedented access to his home and family life; we saw him in the kitchen with his wife, caring for his disabled son Ivan, who subsequently died; we saw them out together on walks pushing their buggies.  Cameron justified his approach on the grounds that he believed the public had a right ‘to know quite a bit about you, your life and your family’.  He certainly won praise for the media. In just the last few weeks we have seen a touch of arrogance on his part.  He has taken on to the government’s payroll in Downing Street his personal photographer and a personal video maker. Formerly sympathetic journalists are accusing him of vanity public relations.  The image of the Prime Minister with his own camera man and video recordist in tow is a gift for cartoonists and sketch writers.The spectacle of the Prime Minister forever looking out for an adoring camera lens will live on in comedy routines.  My own hunch is that it won’t add to his gravitas but end in grief.  It does reveal though how desperate politicians have become – in an age when reputations can be trashed in an online insurgency – to have at least some control over the images which are being offered to the news media. Our next general election in Britain isn’t until May 2015 – that is the date because the coalition government wants a fixed five year Parliament. President Obama is up for election in 2012, a year before German voters go to the polls to elect a new Bundestag. If British experience counts for anything, who knows where online politics will take us.  But I can assure you of this there will be an impact, unpredictable though that might be.END