Politicians, twittering

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.

Update: summary here of the post-debate discussion about new media from Alfred Hermida.


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  1. I can’t agree about the irrelevance of the online angle. The online component added depth to the debate. The TV debate, with the 1min answers has to be shallow by default, but seeing each line and promise analysed immediately by the online community was incredible. A great example was when Osborne talked about Barclays benefiting from the bank bailout… within moments an entire online thread formed to debate the value of bank guarantees to a bank that actually took no government money – with several high profile economists commenting. Really very interesting, the leader debates will be good. I posted my own comment here about the audience, and the larger audience watching Coronation St… http://j.mp/bou25P

  2. Hi George,
    I am not sure you read what I wrote?
    The headline on my blog is ‘A (small) triumph’, so hardly a claim of ‘transformative change’.
    Likewise, I nowhere make the claim that a Tweet can deliver forensic analysis. I don’t know anyone who does. My primary claim was that it delivered engagement (and boy, does UK politics need a bit of that).
    You accept my other point that it broadens the conversation, but then somehow you make a distinction between ‘inside the audience’ and between voters and politicians, as if viewers/Tweeters aren’t voters. The point is that they were able to talk amongst themselves. What exactly is wrong with that?
    Twitter (and all the other platforms I mentioned which you ignore) also connects to a wider range of analysis – much wider than my newspapers delivered in the morning but also connecting to much ‘mainstream media’ material, too.
    The fact that you don’t find that material ‘any good’ suggests to me you have impossibly high standards or haven’t looked hard enough.
    Finally, I think ‘bigger conversations’ can be transformative in themselves. They certainly were when mass media came along in the 20th century. They tend to change the terms of the debate. How they do that is very much to be worked out and played out. Just because it’s not ‘transformative’ enough for you now doesn’t mean it won’t be. I would rather a bigger conversation than a cozy chat behind a paywall.

  3. Just to pick up one of Charlie’s points. It’s not that the online material being generated by the debate isn’t “any good” in my view. Some of it was good and it enriched the backchat. What I was objecting to was the automatic assumption that because the conversation is broader it’s better. Because – yes – I do have “impossibly high standards” I want to be guided to the weapons-grade stuff. I want the signal in the noise.