Three-way pre-election television debate last night between the Chancellor of the Exchequer (i.e. finance minister) and his two rivals from the other main parties. An unusual event in Britain and trailer for the main movie of such debates between party leaders in the imminent election campaign.
Lots of tweets and posts this morning on how the Twitterstream made this the first new media election event of its kind and how excellent all that is. See for example Charlie Beckett of Polis here (and on BBC Radio 4 this morning).
Hate to rain on the tweet parade, but I’m just not buying this as transformative change. We’re at risk of confusing the medium with the message.
At least 1.7m people – rising to 2m by the end according to C4’s debate anchor Krishnan Guru-Murthy – watched the one-hour debate. At that kind of scale this debate and the ones to come may well shift real votes. Old-fashioned terrestrial TV is incomparable for focussing a vivid spotlight that fuses issues of character and argument. No great surprise that Vince Cable, distinctive on both these fronts, was judged the winner.
The format is hardly flawless. You could see immediately where the politicians won and the broadcasters lost in the battle to negotiate the rules. A member of the audience feeds in one question and the pols bat it around. There’s no follow up or supplementaries from that member of the audience: no risk whatever to the politician that someone can accuse them of dodging the issue.
The anchor can follow issues but no established journalist can or will do what members of unregulated TV audiences did to both Margaret Thatcher (over the Falklands war) or to Tony Blair (Iraq) namely pursue a personal, angry line of cross-examination. Those tend to be dramatic and memorable. We won’t be seeing any of them this election season.
And Twitter? Amusing here and there, but essentially irrelevant. Debate, even in these high-stakes and constricted circumstances, is supposed to be forensic: to cleanse the questions that matter of the unimportant and to focus on the differences that count.
Twitter on this debate (or any debate) is scatter chatter. I’ve written elsewhere about the obvious difficulty of trying to follow an argument from a hashtag. Twitter may be brilliant for getting questions answered or links relayed, but it’s lousy at complicated thought. How could it be any good at it? There’s more to read on the web about this debate than there ever would have been in the past. That doesn’t mean that it’s any good.
Ah, tweeters reply, but digital communications give an event a networked, interactive dimension it didn’t have before. It democratises political debate and makes it live more vividly, promoting engagement in politics.
It does broaden the conversation – but that’s the conversation inside the audience, not between voters and politicians in this case. It simply doesn’t deserve the description of “richer, multi-layered reportage.”
An interesting event occurs on mainstream television. The leisured, educated and tech-savvy classes discuss what they see and hear, with – in this case – a heavy injection of tweeting political spinners in the mix. Cafe conversation gone digital, if you like. I just don’t see what’s transformative about a bigger conversation. It’s just larger.