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Politicians and the internet - is it the future

July 31, 2008 12:00 AM
By Peter Black in Agenda Institute of Welsh Affairs

"Nobody tells me anything anymore, they're scared it's going to end up on my blog"

Annie Rhiannon (http://annierhiannon.blogspot.com/)

If you are reading this article thinking that I am going to herald the advent of blogs as a new political camelot then you have come to wrong place. Blogs are a communication tool in the same way as any other. Like television, radio, and the dead tree press it is how you use them that counts rather than what you say on them. On their own they do not reach a wide enough audience to make any substantial difference, however when combined with other media they can be used to devastating effect.

There is no denying that the internet has the potential to change the way that politicians do their job or more importantly, to open up the commentariat to ordinary people, but as with every other innovation it will only succeed if it is used and read. Will politicians and the citizens they represent embrace this new technology?

In many ways blogs are just the vanguard of a more interesting phenomena, the rise of new media. This is a development that does offer the promise to transform our lives by changing the way that we access news and entertainment at home, making it more interactive, more accessible and offering the opportunity to localise and personalise content. If anything will change the way that politicians interact with voters then this will. It may even alter the way that we are governed by transforming our representative democracy into one where direct voter interaction influences the decision making process as it takes place.

Whatever is said I do not believe that the vast majority of people access news and current affairs through the web. They use it to supplement other sources and to catch up with developments. The digitisation of television means that people have greater choice but it also means that the golden age of public service television is coming to an end. The opportunity is there for people to create their own channels and their own content on-line with the development of local television channels. Already some regional newspapers are using their websites to screen videos offering a new angle on more traditionally reported stories. People can comment on articles on-line and their views printed in the next day's newspaper. Consumers can also vote in quick on-line polls on the issues of the day. That type of service is likely to grow.

Fortunately for the future of representative democracy, on-line polls and direct voting on issues remains scientifically unreliable and open to abuse. Nevertheless as they become more sophisticated and more widely used these tools are able to be used by those well-versed in the manipulation of more traditional media to influence debate and by implication the process of government itself.

Faced with a newspaper poll showing overwhelming opposition to a school closure programme and which is backed up with letters and petitions, what local politician will not back down in some way and seek a more acceptable compromise? It is still the case that it is when new media is used in association with more traditional campaigning methods that it is most effective rather than standing on its own two feet.

Tools are being devised and used that do enable direct participation by people in the democratic process. In many ways these are just on-line versions of existing tools but their accessibility means that it has never been easier to be an armchair activist and actually make a difference. The Welsh Assembly for example has recently launched Senedd.tv, which enables users to watch live sessions or archive footage in high quality on their home or work computers. What is more this footage is searchable so you can single out the contributions of a particular AM or watch a specific debate.

The Assembly also has an e-petition site, which unlike 10 Downing Street, enables citizens to produce petitions on-line that will feed into the Assembly's committee process and be considered by AMs. Petitions may be referred to a scrutiny committee or a Minister for action, the petitions committee itself may take evidence on it or it could be passed directly to Plenary for debate.

An example of how this works is the recent petition calling for the Assembly Government to adopt a system of presumed consent for organ donation. Although this was not an on-line petition its course through the process will be very similar. The petition was referred to the Health and Local Government Committee, who initiated an enquiry and who also put a forum onto the Assembly's website seeking contributions from interested parties. It is the intention to make much more use of forums on the website in future and to allow interested parties to initiate their own threads.

In the USA the use of the internet for political campaigning is widespread. Candidates produce on-line videos, which are widely watched. Websites are set up to provide minute by minute news on what the candidate is doing, including his or her own blog and these are supplemented by blogs written by members of the campaign team. Many of these sites are used to solicit a large number of small individual donations.

The key to this is the reach of the candidate's on-line presence. According to Barrack Obama's official website for example, 280,000 people have created accounts on BarrackObama.com. From those on-line accounts, 6,500 grassroot volunteer groups have been created and more than 13,000 off-line events organised through the site. Over 370,000 individual online donations have been made, more than half of which are for less than $25. In addition supporters have set up their own personal fundraising pages to proactively recruit their social network to donate to the campaign. These pages have raised over $1.5m. This sort of network enabled Obama to raise $32 million in January 2008.

It is unlikely that this could ever be replicated in the United Kingdom, though it will not be through want of trying on the part of the political parties. Our politics is not so personality based, our internet sites do not have the same reach, our political culture has never encouraged self-starters to work in this way and the closed nature of the membership of our parties tends to discourage the sort of spontaneity that has characterised much of Obama's efforts.

We have had much more success with sites such as www.justgiving.com that enables charities to raise money on-line than we have setting up similar efforts on the part of candidates. Most parties tend to use their on-line presence to trawl for members and supporters, whilst concentrating their e-fundraising efforts at existing members and donors.

Having said this it is the case that the use of on-line media by politicians and their parties is growing. Many are experimenting with internet based party political broadcasts and occasional videos to add interest to otherwise dry content. Others are setting up specific campaign sites to advance a cause or to monitor the work of government. Home Office Watch for example (www.homeofficewatch.com) is essentially a blog that acts as a resource for those seeking to gather ammunition to throw at the government on civil liberty issues and the like.

One Liberal Democrat MP uses his website as an on-line consultation tool. Steve Webb, who represents Northavon, has an e-mail group with thousands of members who he regularly consults on a wide range of issues. He posts the results of surveys on his website, which can be found at http://www.stevewebb.org.uk/. He also has a blog.

Tools have emerged that enable individual party members and activists to easily set up petition sites and polls, to customise their own sites and toolbars and to take advantage of on-line advertising to raise money for the party. It remains the case though that the best way to maximise the impact of one's online presence is to use it to exploit more traditional and more widely viewed media.

A good example of this is the on-line party political broadcast produced by the Wales Labour Party prior to last year's Assembly elections. Entitled 'Remember the Tory years' it was billed as too controversial for Television and posted on YouTube instead at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHRTLp960Cg. To date it has had 12,275 views, many of which were generated by the initial burst of publicity for it in the press.

A better example of how a blog has been used to influence the political agenda is the way that Plaid Cymru MP, Adam Price used his on-line presence (http://www.adampriceblog.org.uk/) to start a debate within his party and the wider media about the sort of coalition Plaid should be seeking in the Welsh Assembly. The timing of his post was right, at about the time that talks with the Welsh Liberal Democrats and the Tories were floundering, and his views led directly to Rhodri Morgan contacting the Plaid leadership and the formation of the One Wales' Government.

There are many other examples of Welsh politicians using their blogs to generate debate or to get a point across in the wider media, though none so successful as Adam Price. Nevertheless, the use of new media by Assembly Members and Welsh MPs remains the exception rather than the rule. Many have a Facebook page or utilise MySpace but few use it themselves or in a way that might involve more people in their activities. Most view blogs with suspicion or fear.

An article by BBC journalist and former blogger, Ciaran Jenkins on the Cardiff School of Journalism website at http://journalism.cf.ac.uk/2007/online/index.php?id=parse-195-0-0-251&article=463 deals with this issue far more comprehensively and with greater insight than I am able to muster. He reports that in total 12 AMs keep a blog, the other 48 are fairly sceptical about the concept. Alas in the seventeen months since the article was written the dozen has dwindled to six, whilst I am aware of only four Welsh MPs who blog and one of those has not posted for nearly a year. What Ciaran's article reveals is an anti-blogging trend amongst some politicians, who view the medium with suspicion and would rather it went away:

'"I think bloggers speak only to other bloggers," says Karen Sinclair (Labour, Clwyd South). It's a sentiment echoed by many other AMs. Asked if blogging was an effective tool for communicating with voters, 38% agreed, but 32% did not, with the remainder unsure.'

He goes on to record that AMs are resisting the blogging craze:

'56% do not read any blogs at all. "I have never found one that is interesting enough to look for a repeat," says Janet Davies (Plaid, South Wales West).

But at least she looked. A number of the most vehement criticisms of blogs, however, come from politicians who confess never to have read one. "Blogs appear to be used by a disproportionately large number of headbangers and people without a life," says John Marek (Independent, Wrexham). "I don't read or write blogs. I do other things."'

Quite why that is I personally do not understand. Politicians put a lot of material out to the public all of which is open to misinterpretation and can be twisted against them. Whether it is speeches, articles, press releases or just the occasional comment on-line, we have seen opponents swoop with glee on any mistake and use it to their own advantage. The risks involved with blogging are much the same but the benefits are great too. Why would any politician turn down the chance to get their views across unedited to hundreds of people each day?

Personally, I blog for a number of reasons, chiefly that I enjoy it, however, it is because I believe that it is my duty as a politician to engage with the wider electorate that I persist with it. I am able to use my blog as a campaigning archive, to pursue themes over a period of time and to debate them with those who wish to comment on the posts. I have used it to generate news stories in the dead tree press and I have made use of the opportunities it provides to advance internal arguments within the party as well.

My blog reflects my interests, which are often wider than the narrowly political. I try to make it entertaining and occasionally witty because otherwise nobody would read it. Yes, it is an ego trip but it is one embarked on for good reasons and sound political motives and as such I believe it is a justifiable journey.

The statistics for who reads my blog are available via a link on the site for anybody to read. On average I will get 200 plus people visiting the site each day and between 350 and 400 hits. It is difficult to pin down who actually reads it but a fair guess would say other politicians, journalists and some ordinary people who have an interest in political matters.

Despite the reluctance of many Welsh politicians to get involved the blog scene itself is very healthy as is evident from blog aggregator sites such as Welsh Political News found at http://www.politics-wales.co.uk/. As well as politicians we also get blogs by journalists, sometimes writing on behalf of their media outlet, sometimes in a personal capacity. Many bloggers are members of political parties but not elected politicians whilst others do not write about politics at all. Some such as Richard Brunstrom, are senior police officers.

The consensus is that it is a lively but challenging community in which vigorous debate takes place about the many issues facing Wales and its government. Between them they add to the sense of debate about the Country and its future, something that is missing on the mainstream media.

The new media may be revolutionising the way we fight elections and pursue our politics but it is the blogosphere that is hosting the necessary discussions on how we make the most of our new devolved democracy. What is more these conversations are open to all. Visit and read, comment and respond, or go to www.blogger.com and start your own blog. There really is a welcome for all in the virtual valleys and hillsides of Wales, no matter what language you wish to write in.

Peter Black is the Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Member for South Wales West. He blogs at www.peterblack.blogspot.com

Wales's top blogs - a personal view

Politicians

Leighton Andrews AM http://www.leightonandrews.com/

Peter Black AM http://peterblack.blogspot.com/

Glyn Davies http://www.glyndaviesam.blogspot.com/

Paul Flynn MP http://paulflynnmp.typepad.com/

Bethan Jenkins AM http://bethanjenkins.blogspot.com/

David Jones MP http://davidjonesclwydwest.blogspot.com/index.html

Huw Lewis AM http://www.huwlewis.org.uk/

Journalists

Clive Betts http://cambriapolitico.com/

Tom Bodden http://goginthebay.northwalesblogs.co.uk/

David Cornock http://davidcornock.blogspot.com/

Tomos Livingstone http://0725topaddington.blogspot.com/

Betsan Powys http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/betsanpowys/

Vaughan Roderick http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/cymraeg/

Matt Withers http://mattwithers.welshblogs.co.uk/

Commentators

Ceredig http://ceredig.blogspot.com/

Evidently Chickentown http://evidentlychickentown.wordpress.com/

The Cynical Dragon http://thecynicaldragon.blogspot.com/

Guerrilla Welsh-fare http://guerrilla-welsh-fare.blogspot.com/

Dylan Jones-Evans http://www.dylanje.blogspot.com/index.html

Normal Mouth http://normalmouth.blogspot.com/

Ordovicius http://this-is-sparta.blogspot.com/

Valleys Mam http://merchmerthyr.blogspot.com/

Miss Wagstaff http://onewalesgovernment.blogspot.com/

Matt Wardman http://www.mattwardman.com/

Marcus Warner http://southpawgrammarwales.blogspot.com/

Welsh Ramblings http://welshramblings.blogspot.com/index.html