Writing in Prospect magazine this month Steven Johnson and Paul Starr debate the question of whether the changes brought to the media by the internet herald “a golden age of serious journalism” or whether it will bring down standards.
As someone whose job is to write on the web, I naturally hope it will be the latter – especially in regard to political reporting and content. The European elections are just a few weeks away and we are beavering away at all manner of things for the website, YouTube, Facebook – you name it – trying to persuade people to vote. We even have some viral stuff – and I’m not talking about swine flu either.
A recent gift by my Polish colleague, Leszek, got me thinking about how different methods of political communication have changed over the last 200 years.
It was of a reprint of “The Times” after the Battle of Waterloo providing a fascinating insight into news back in 1815. The front page is filled with adverts for lodgings, meetings, Governesses and tutors. The inside pages have a full account of the battle itself by the Duke of Wellington and an “official bulletin” from Downing Street which celebrated the end of “a long and sanguinary conflict”.
This was political communication 1815 style. The date is 22 June, 4 days after the battle – a period of time that would be unthinkable now in the modern news cycle.
This was of course the newspaper age – something that is perhaps still with us – but which faces a serious challenge for its survival from the internet and global recession. It survived the telegram, the radio, cinema and the TV, which have all indelibly shaped politics. Above all TV has shaped modern politics. Famously in the 1960 TV presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy those who listened to it on radio thought Nixon had won, whilst the TV audience gave victory to Kennedy due to hid healthier pallor and Nixon’s perspiration.
A flickr of genius
Traditionally the best way to convince the voters is by making speeches to large numbers of voters. Many tended to be long-winded affairs with the oratorical giant like William Gladstone holding his listeners spellbound for hours as he denounced the policies of his old foe Disraeli.
Recently a lawyer from Illinois has been in the news for getting elected as US President in part due to his speaking skills. It was another lawyer from that State, Abraham Lincoln, who in November 1863 combined oratory and brevity in equal measure with a speech at the site of the Gettysburg battlefield.
Renowned orator Edward Everett delivered a two hour oration before Lincoln – but who remembers that now? After he had finished Lincoln stood up and spoke for perhaps 2 to 3 minutes summarizing the Union’s aims in the Civil War in 10 sentences, which have rightly gone down in history.
Whatever the format I think well chosen words and an effective delivery always have impact. Recently a certain British MEP delivered a pretty blistering assault on Prime Minister Gordon Brown after his speech to the European Parliament. With the help of the old media – namely the right-wing newspapers extolling its brilliance – it has now been viewed over 2.2 million times. Whether or not one shares his views, he has demonstrated is that the YouTube format does work when carrying effective speeches from Brussels and Strasbourg.
Face to Face book
One of the most tried and trusted way to persuade the voters is by meeting them – although as any candidate will tell you this can are a nerve wracking affair.
Being “on the stump” is a good way for aspiring candidates to meet their electorate. My sister, who lives in London, recently told me that a nice old lady from the Conservative party had knocked on her door the other day and asked whether she would be voting for them. Something about this quaint British tradition of canvassing door to door I find really appealing. It gives you a chance to see your candidates and get a measure of them.
Naturally, if they are the party you have no intention of voting for the trick is to keep them talking at length on the doorstep so they have less time to go to other people…
Here in Belgium they have this nice habit of coming round markets and asking if you intend to vote for them – this weekend I accumulated several leaflets from the Green party as I sat having a coffee. The slight irony of the greens giving out leaflets has always struck me but I’m sure it’s recycled paper!
The Belgians also erect billboards around the town so that parties and candidates can paste up their pictures it can be quite amusing and parochial, but it’s faintly reassuring. Election posters are a whole genre in themselves. It also seems the worse the regime – the better the posters. I defy anyone not to be impressed by the visual splendour Soviet posters depicting all manner of Communist “triumphs”.
In the 2004 European Parliamentary elections the internet played a part but it is in the last 5 years that it has really come of age with YouTube, Facebook and Twitter entering the lexicon. Given the amount of people who use them I doubt they will fade easily.
Here in the Web Communication Unit of the Parliament’s Communication Department have not only developed a website in the EU’s 22 languages that gets over 100,00 visits a day but have embraced them along with Facebook, MySpace and flickr to try and get the message across.
The good thing about this is that it allows people to communicate with us and get their own message across.