How Conservative bloggers are out in front in the blogsphere.
Speech to Fondazione Farefuturo, Rome, July 3, 2007
For a political party in opposition, being ahead of the game in exploiting new forms of media might prove to be just as important in terms of fighting an election as devising an effective campaign message. It was the sure-footed way in which the Labour Party took advantage of the expansion in television news channels and programmes in the late 1980s and early 1990s which helped to propel Tony Blair to a landslide victory in the British general election of 1997.
Ten years later, despite three successive election defeats, it is activists in the Conservative Party who are dictating the pace in using websites and blogs to promote and debate the Tory agenda. Initially the bloggers did not get much help or even encouragement from the party leadership, but there is now a better appreciation of their potential to improve the electoral chances of David Cameron while at the same time making life uncomfortable for the Labour government. And, perhaps more significantly, it is definitely bloggers from the right rather than from the left who are managing to establish themselves as a new generation of political commentators and pundits. Their views are increasingly being sought by the traditional news media, such as newspapers, television and radio. Their websites have become instant sounding boards for political opinion and as a result they are closer to the party membership
Not only are the Conservative bloggers on the march -- and on the attack -- but their regular contact with like minded individuals provides a ready-made platform for organising and communicating political information. Innovative and aggressive political websites such as www.18doughtystreet.com www.conservativehome.com www.iaindale.blogspot.com and www.order-order.com seem best placed to link up with the social networking sites such as www.facebook.com and www.myspace.com which have become so popular in the UK. The new opportunities for political campaigning seem almost limitless. Just think of the impact if the Conservative Party leader David Cameron -- or even individual Conservative candidates -- could be nominated as friends or favourites. The growth on line in social and professional networking has really taken off: even groups of journalists on The Guardian and presenters and producers on BBC programmes like Newsnight are registering their names on Facebook. And we have already seen in the United States, in the build-up to next year’s Presidential election, how endorsements on Facebook for the Democratic candidate Barack Obama have been running well ahead of those for Hilary Clinton.
Another reason why the emergence of sophisticated websites on the right is so significant, especially in the United Kingdom, is because it is largely newspapers from the right, rather than the left, which have the most advanced websites. Except for The Guardian ( www.guardian.co.uk ) which of course is by far the most popular site from a left or liberal perspective, it is newspapers such as Rupert Murdoch’s Sun ( www.thesun.co.uk ) and The Times www.timesoline.co.uk and also the Daily Telegraph ( www.telegraph.co.uk ) and the Daily Mail ( www.dailymail.co.uk ) which have invested most money and resources in developing online versions of their newspapers.
As another general election in Britain is perhaps a year away at least -- but it could be two or even three years before Britain goes to the polls -- who knows by then how much larger, and how much more important, the blogsphere will have become. My hunch is that we could well see in the United Kingdom not just a convergence of websites and television, but more to the point an online convergence on the right with much closer links between political websites and sympathetic newspapers. The Sun and its sister Sunday paper, the News of the World, could become powerful political weapons in the hands of a media proprietor like Murdoch and could be of considerable electoral benefit to whichever party his papers decide to support.
Mentioning the name Murdoch and raising the question of his political allegiance gets to the very heart of the critical dynamic in the relationship between newspaper proprietors and the government of the day. For a hundred years or more British Prime Ministers have often come to rely on the political support of the press and what has to be remembered is that the proprietors are extremely promiscuous, not afraid to switch their support from one party to another. What was so disappointing about Tony Blair’s farewell critique about the UK’s media standards in his recent speech to the Reuters Institute (12.6.2007) was his abject failure to address the impact of his own relationship, first as Labour Party leader and then as Prime Minister, with Murdoch’s four national newspapers.
His two daily and two Sunday papers currently have an unhealthy 42 per cent share of the market. What was so different about the Blair decade was that we had a Prime Minister from the Labour Party, the party of the left, establishing a very close relationship with Murdoch, a media magnate of the right. So when Blair castigated the British news media for "hunting in a pack…like a feral beast" we can only smile. We journalists know the truth. He was a Prime Minister who was so slavish in his dealings with Murdoch’s newspapers, that the Sun -- which regards itself as the real beast of British journalism -- became a puppy dog, only too happy to have its tummy tickled by Mr and Mrs Blair. From what I sense is happening, our new Prime Minister Gordon Brown is just as keen to retain the support of the Murdoch press. At the same time, just to be safe, Brown is also trying to develop a friendly accord with the editor of the Daily Mail, which has the second largest daily sale and which became the paper which Tony and Cherie Blair hated most of all.
Meanwhile the Conservative leader David Cameron, struggling to regain the initiative after the change in Prime Minister, remains ever hopeful, waiting patiently for the day when Murdoch might revert to supporting the Conservative Party. Who can forget how the Conservatives basked in his Murdoch’s affection during most of Margaret Thatcher’s Premiership. In the few days since he took over from Tony Blair, Gordon Brown has enjoyed a well-earned media honeymoon, with lots of sympathetic press coverage and a very welcome boost in the opinion polls.
It is because the relationship between British politicians and the media is so fickle, that we saw such a determined attempt by the Blair government to get close to the proprietors. But inevitably the loss of respect and trust which tends to afflict most political leaders under the constant focus of the 24-hour media, started to accelerate in Blair’s case from 2001, after he signed up unquestioningly to American foreign policy in the wake of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre. Ending up being portrayed as George Bush’s poodle was bad enough; the falsehoods in the government’s dossier on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction gave credence to the fatal charge that Blair had taken Britain to war on the basis of a lie, a stain on his Premiership which he has found it impossible to remove.
Nonetheless Blair can claim a lasting legacy in the revolution which has taken place in the way the British government tries to communicate in today’s hectic 24/7 media environment. Alastair Campbell’s first act on becoming Blair’s press secretary in 1997 was to re-write the rules for government information officers, instructing them to "grab the agenda" by trailing decisions and new policies even before ministers had made their announcements in Parliament. His tactic was to try to use the press to set the agenda by offering them exclusive stories which he hoped would be followed up by television and radio. Campbell understood the mindset of the tabloid newspapers and he and Peter Mandelson had an equally clear grasp of the mechanics of broadcasting.
The combined skill of these two spin doctors in manipulating the media put Blair ahead of the game, first in opposition fighting the Conservatives and then in government. My complaint was that much of the information passed to trusted newspaper journalists was usually leaked on an off-the-record basis, often being supplied as an exclusive. The Blair administration used pre-emptive leaks to favoured journalists in order to take advantage of the competitive pressures which have driven the media pack to take ever greater risks, which explains why so many of us are so cynical of Blair’s complaints about falling standards in press, television and radio. This growth in the trade in un-attributable information has made it easier for journalists to embellish quotations and manufacture their own exclusive stories. Many of our political reports -- in newspapers, television and radio -- are now being attributed to "cabinet insiders", "ministerial aides", "Whitehall officials" and a host of other equally anonymous sources.
Gordon Brown has indicated he will try to turn his back on spin and he is promising greater openness in an effort to restore trust in government statistics and announcements. Indeed, to be fair, he does seem to have taken some encouraging first steps. I have written an open letter to Michael Ellam, the new Downing Street press secretary, (see my archive and blog:
www.nicholasjones.org.uk ) suggesting a series of further new initiatives. I hope the Prime Minister’s office will take advantage of the dominance of the internet and recognise that it is now possible for the state to provide all journalists with the same information at the same time. That would be so much healthier. I know it is a cliché to talk of a level playing field but if the government did clean up the way news and information is distributed it might well make it harder for some journalists to distort their stories and perhaps it would begin taming those "feral beasts" who Blair complained about.
Ensuring equal access to announcements via websites and email would bring immediate gains: all sections of the news media would be on an equal footing and so would pressure groups, campaigners, bloggers and the like. Nothing annoys them more than being treated as second class citizens, being forced to take information second-hand from that select band of journalists who are favoured by the government. If equal access was backed up by a determined attempt to reduce deliberate leaks and tip-offs, there would be fewer hiding places for those journalists who take advantage of the anonymity of their sources to write bogus or malicious stories. Michael Ellam could enhance his own credibility if he identified himself by name, instead of continuing the practice of his predecessors and hiding under the anonymous title of "official spokesman". I wish he would go a step further and come out of the shadows entirely. It is time Downing Street adopted the long-standing practice of the White House and instituted televised briefings.
To his credit, Gordon Brown has promised to reduce the number of politically appointed spin doctors. Under Tony Blair they were allowed to give instructions to the civil service information officers employed by the government. It was Alastair Campbell who had a central role in the compilation of the "dodgy dossier" on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction just as it was another Labour spin doctor, Jo Moore, who told the staff in her Whitehall department that the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre was "a very good day to get out anything we want to bury". Despite the current honeymoon for Gordon Brown, Labour are facing a revived Conservative Party and the previous track record of Prime Ministers taking over from a popular Premier between elections is not good and they usually end up getting defeated.
Therefore although the Conservatives’ chances of winning the election might well be influenced by the possible unpopularity of Labour after thirteen or fourteen years in power, David Cameron’s chances of success will still depend on his ability to put together a long-term policy platform and media strategy. In the last two years, Cameron has steered his party towards the middle ground and it does appear to be far more tolerant towards ethnic minorities and groups like gays and lesbians. Cameron has also carved out a forward-looking position on the environment and energy saving.
But the Conservatives lack an effective media strategy and an ability to influence the news agenda. This could change with the recent appointment of Andy Coulson, their new director of communications. He was formerly editor of the Murdoch paper, the News of the World, and there are quite a few of the front pages from his world exclusives hanging on the walls of News International’s hall of fame. Under Coulson’s editorship, the News of the World broke the story about the love affairs of the footballer David Beckham and then the England football manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson. These were sensational stories and the way they were delivered showed Coulson’s sense of timing. Our tabloid newspapers are renowned for intrusive disclosures and there is no doubt that Coulson could use his skill to great effect in exploiting weaknesses in Gordon Brown’s government. I do not think anything would be off limits. Labour used the same kind of tricks to hang the word "sleaze" around the neck of the defeated Conservative Prime Minister John Major.
Another of Coulson’s achievements was that he established Rupert Murdoch’s first profitable website www.page3.com which features the topless girls who appear on the Sun’s page three. This underlines my point about the potential of the internet and the possible convergence of political websites with the online versions of popular newspapers. If the Conservatives took advantage of their current lead in blogging, if Coulson applied his mind to how this could be linked with tabloid journalism, I think political websites might well become the Trojan horse that starts to erode Britain’s long tradition of balanced television and radio reporting during general elections.
Six months ago the government decided that broadcasting on the internet by newspaper websites should be self regulated. Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, announced it would not seek to monitor or control the audio-visual content of online newspapers; that is to be left to the self-regulation of the Press Complaints Commission. This decision could have far reaching implications because it means that broadcasting on newspaper websites will not be subjected to the long-standing regulations which require television and radio to provide balanced political coverage and which forbids partisan broadcasting in support of one party or another. This freedom -- and particularly the freedom over political debate and comment -- is precisely what the newspaper proprietors have been demanding and which they will do their utmost to defend if there is any attempt by the European Union to try to regulate television services streamed over the internet.
The British media companies will insist that online newspapers are excluded from any European Audiovisual Media Services Directive. In the UK true convergence is only a matter of months away as British television viewers will soon be able to purchase set top boxes which at the click of a remote control will give them a choice of websites on their television screens. At that point we will inevitably see a further push by the big media proprietors to capture a bigger share of the website market in order to compensate for their loss of newspaper sales.
British political websites are already at the cutting edge in political broadcasting. Almost a year ago www.18doughtystreet.com began live transmissions of daily political discussions and debates. Another of its innovations has been the production of the kind of television attack advertisements which are so prominent in American elections. Attack ads are not allowed on British television. Instead the parties are allowed to transmit a tightly controlled number of election broadcasts which are allocated according to a formula based on the number of constituencies each party is contesting. The most successful attack ad on www.18doughtystreet.com is "A World Without America" which is a staunch defence of America’s role in the world.
Another far more controversial offering is an attack ad the record of Ken Livingstone, the Labour Mayor of London. It contains hard-hitting lines about how London is "less safe than New York", how as "London’s problems mount Ken Livingstone is enjoying himself and found time to visit Cuba". My concern is that unregulated attack ads could well appear on websites of newspapers such as the Sun or the News of the World. Over the decades British newspapers have built up mass circulations on the back of political campaigning. The most successful publishers became formidable players on the political stage, be it the Lords Northcliffe and Beaverbrook of earlier years or more latterly Rupert Murdoch. I think that come the next election political parties struggling for support will rue the day that the government failed to ensure action to protect balanced reporting on television and radio.
On the other hand, the bloggers tell me not to be a troglodyte. They say the internet is so vast that there will be space for every shade of political opinion. I am not convinced. Media proprietors are having to adjust to the fact that advertising on the net now exceeds that of newspapers and might soon overtake television. The big companies will want a share of the action. Political campaigning is already moving on line and I am afraid collusion between the politicians and media proprietors will not be far behind.