05 April 2007

Conservatives 2.0


– Trine Bjørkmann Andreassen & David M. Berry**

What is real and what is mere representation, copy or facsimile? Pertinent questions for a philosopher, you might think, but in the media age in which we conduct our politics today it is becoming equally important for us to think about. Political parties across Europe (and particularly in Britain) are busy digesting and learning the media management techniques of the Labour Party PR machine, and particularly the uncontested familiarity and consummate skill in manipulating the media shown of Tony Blair, the Labour party leader and current British Prime Minister. From managing headlines, directing the new agenda, and getting the message ‘out’ in the way in which they want it to be reported by the mainstream press the enduring achievement of this government seems to have been that they fully understood how the media worked and could then be manipulated. But, when one looks closely at Blair and his attempts to leverage the media to stay ‘on-message’ it becomes increasingly obvious that he is ‘old’ media, besotted with an age of mass circulation, mass opinion and the views of the (wo)man-on-the-street.

In a certain sense, the success of Labour in 1997 was due to the years they spent in the political wilderness, banished there by the success of an aggressive and PR supported conservative party (Maurice Saatchi often credited with some of the best political campaigns ever run). Helped by the press, who eagerly bought the ‘narrative’ of a loony-left Labour party, completely lost in a theoretical and out-of-date socialist legacy, appearing divided at conferences and unable to respond to the changes that had taken place in the press in terms of new technology in the newsroom and the breaking of the print unions (Fleet Street was a memory rather than a functioning location for the production of news). It was, therefore, not surprising, that strategists and ambitious young politicians in the Labour Party realised that the key to getting back to power was dealing with the problems raised by the public profile of Labour, particularly its perceived weaknesses (witness the Clause IV debate on the nationalization of British industry) and presenting a more progressive modern in-touch media image. They soon came to the conclusion that rather than leave the press to its own devices (idle hands and journalism being dangerously linked) they could overload the press with information and policy announcements which gave the impression of change and movement in government and more importantly didn’t give journalists pause for breath to see what the government was actually doing. That is to say, they created the simulacra of a major political shift through the media image, whilst arguably trying to put into practice the kinds of policies that a Labour government would want to institute (e.g. fighting child poverty, rebuilding the welfare state, and mild redistributive tax policies).

Times change, however, and today we live in a completely different media ecology to that of 1997. Then managing the media meant dealing with the reality of the mass market machines of Fleet Street and Television news. The Internet, or rather the popular manifestation of it as the Web, had only recently been created in 1994 and had yet to move beyond a rather small elite user group. Until now the Internet had not really played a decisive and important part in political life, and without the recent speed increases in terms of broadband together with the growth in storage capacity online, it probably still wouldn’t. Now we have online video storage of remarkable flexibility and, more importantly, the bandwidth to watch it, as anyone who has visited any of the video sharing websites across the Internet will have discovered. Together with this, new technologies such as blogging (the online diary writing which has taken the Internet by storm)[i] and Wikis (collaborative writing technologies for websites)[ii] there are a whole new world of media forms that are yet to show how they might change the saturated media landscape.

So it is surprising that the media-aware Labour Party has not made a move to reign in this new media, in fact it has studiously ignored or remained rather ignorant of its possibilities[iii]. Instead, the old-fashioned stodgy British Conservative party seems to have jumped on the new media bandwagon and actively leapfrogged the old media approach of Labour[iv]. Moving straight into the new media world of Internet video diaries, or videoblogs[v], Web 2.0 and grassroots narrowcasting[vi]. In fact it is telling to what extent Labour have missed the entire new media juggernaut – the blogging community, for example, being decidedly off-message[vii].

The Conservative party leader, David Cameron, announced his website webcameron.org.uk, as the Tory party's ‘secret new weapon’ on September 29th 2006, coinciding with the annual party conference (Cameron's first as leader), The site is modeled on the popular video hosting and social networking site YouTube[viii], which boast over 100 million video downloads every single day. Cameron's videoblog features low quality 'amateur' videos and a simple design that is built around Cameron speaking to the camera about key issues. Noticeably uncut, unedited and with a documentary aesthetic the videos give Cameron: (1) a channel to communicate directly with an audience bypassing the traditional gatekeepers of the mass media; (2) an ability to comment quickly on breaking news items; and (3) the opportunity to put his position forward without having to pander to the soundbite news agenda. It also allows the Conservatives to score a very important coup in regard to appearing forward-looking and innovative in connecting with a new technology literate audience often made up of very young and media literate individuals.

The videos themselves are reminiscent of other video material posted to YouTube by users; short (mostly 3 minutes long), low quality due to bandwidth restrictions and containing potentially embarrassing copyright infringements[ix] – mainly talking heads of Cameron giving information about where he is, what he is doing or his intentions for the party/website/country. The hand held camera (‘a bit shaky and wobbly’), rough edits and lack of title sequences, music or credits gives some resonance to the idea of it being a webcam recording, though it seems fairly obvious that Cameron in fact has someone working for him to produce these videos. In fact, the raw feel of the videos is part of the presentation of self that is carefully stage-managed by the site and which gives the whole performance a radical and innovative Web 2.0 feel.

The first video on webcameron, Introduction to webcameron, was posted on the 29 Sept 2006 and lasted one minute ten seconds[x]. It received quite a lot of press in the UK and elsewhere, and serves as a good example of how Cameron is attempting to use new media as a away to both engage with the public, and – perhaps more tellingly - differentiate himself from the Labour party. The video follows him from room to room in his Notting Hill home. His discourses are ‘interrupted’ by his children and he participates in everyday chores such as washing up whilst on camera. The amateur feel of the recording; hand held, minimal editing and diegetic sound and light, can be seen as an attempt to give the videos a mark of authenticity. Cameron speaks indirectly about the new media, even taking on national institutions like the BBC:

I want to tell you what the Conservative party is doing, what we're up to, give you behind-the-scenes access so you can actually see what policies we're developing, the things that we are doing, and have that direct link ... watch out BBC, ITV, Channel 4, we're the new competition. We're a bit shaky and wobbly, but this is one of the ways we want to communicate with people properly about what the Conservative party stands for. (Cameron, Introduction to webcameron, 29 Sept 2006, one minute ten seconds)



Another video titled responding to comments (one minute one second) shows Cameron personally responding to comments left by viewers, on his own laptop with the caption: ‘the most boring video of a politician ever? You asked for it!’ emphasizing the extent to which Cameron is taking an active interest in respondents and comments on his blog. What is most remarkable about this video is the amount of time video recording the actual answering of blog posts via the keyboard (although this does betray the lack of typing skills of the Conservative leader).

However one of the most interesting videos is titled After the speech, discussing Webcameron (two minutes and forty seconds) where Cameron talks about the importance of the videoblogging to the Conservatives with Sam Roake, revealingly titled Head of Web Campaigning for the Conservative Party. At the first cut in the video (one minute twenty-five seconds), after Cameron has talked about how he feels about his first conference speech, he turns to Roake to discuss the details of the site – who explains that many of the key Web 2.0 technologies (e.g. RSS syndication of the news and the ability to comment on the contents by users are actually disabled at the time of recording) the technical nature of which seems to flummox Cameron a little. Again at the next cut (two minutes four seconds) Roake talks about the problem of user commenting and allowing people to communicate via this mechanism, here again revealingly Cameron misunderstands, believing that Roake is asking him to respond to comments, but promises to give his time to ‘make the site interactive’. Although demonstrating that the strategy is still at an embryonic stage and that Cameron, although clearly new to the technologies being discussed, senses that this offer opportunities for his party that he may well be the only leader (of any party) that is in a position to monopolise the advantages from. Although the road to Web 2.0 may not be as smooth as Cameron might like as one posting to his site complains:

I can't help noticing that Mr Cameron, thus far, has not responded to the people wishing him a happy birthday. In fact he's not responded to any of us or any of our comments at all since Tuesday 3rd October when he name-checked a couple of people whose posts were at that point on the front page of the Open Blog in a bid to reassure us that this site WAS interactive. ---- We're doing our bit, we're watching his party political broadcasts on "David's Blog" and we're talking about the issues important to us. I am now asking, is Mr Cameron going to "put aside time in his diary" for us, as he promised, or does one have to pay ££thousands to have a meal with him before he pays attention? (Posted by mary123 on Tuesday, 10 October 2006 11:26:15)


It is perhaps not surprising that the leader of the opposition should not find time to respond to comments on his website, when he has a party to run, ‘old media’ appearances to make and a future election campaign to plan. Some might even argue that if he did find time for this he wouldn’t be doing enough elsewhere. But if the goal of webcameron was to create close ties with a community of users, and raise the profile of the Conservatives as a forward-looking party then it has arguably already placed the Conservatives apart from Labour, and indeed given Cameron a much more connected and in-touch (new) media image.

So what exactly are the advantages of these ad hoc video posts from the Leader of the Opposition? Well, with webcameron, the Conservative party are seen to be embracing new media and, more specifically, taking on the values of Web 2.0, social networking and the whole Internet revolution. The Conservatives, and David Cameron in particular, look fresh, up to date and in touch with today’s technically sophisticated audiences – it could even be seen as a radical branding exercise of David Cameron as a sellable leader (it is interesting to note the lack of links or identification with the Conservative party on the webcameron website, for example)[xi]. But is this enough to capture the voters? Well, only time will tell, and the Conservatives have yet to identify any policies to match their new found interest in technology and environmentalism. Nonetheless it is a promising start, and radical in as much as webcameron is taking risks in bypassing the well-presented heavily edited PR videos of the traditional party media output. In fact, it is to the credit of Cameron that he has experimented with new media in a relatively open and innovative way. Whether the Conservatives 2.0 project will generate as much excitement as the Web 2.0 phenomena on which it is partly based remains to be seen, but we suspect that if the Conservatives continue with this experiment, the difference between the increasingly presidential distance of the Tony Blair’s media image and David Cameron’s one-to-one washing-up chats may mark a turn towards electoral success for the British Conservative Party.


** originally published as: Andreassen, T. B. & Berry, D M. (2006). Conservatives 2.0. Minerva. Norway. Nr 08 2006. pp 92-95

Weblinks

http://www.conservatives.com
http://www.webcameron.org.uk
http://www.youtube.com


Endnotes

[i] Pew Internet & American Life Project estimates there are now 12 million American bloggers and 57 million adults reading them.
[ii] The most famous wiki is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia project – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page
[iii] Although Labour MP Tom Watson has (according to his website) has been blogging since March 2003, see http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/archives/2003/03/first_post.html and Lord Soely of Hammersmith since October 2003, see http://clivesoleymp.typepad.com/clive_soley_mp/2003/10/first_entry.html
[iv] See Hyde, M (2006) Does anyone care whether David Cameron's children have finished their cornflakes? Guardian Online, Tuesday October 3, 2006. Retrieved October 6th 2006 from http://politics.guardian.co.uk/conservatives/comment/0,,1886197,00.html
[v] Videoblogs are a hybrid form of video distribution and personal blogging. The weblog can be traced back as early as 1997, the term coined by John Barger and later shortened to ‘blog’ by Peter Merholz on his blog peterme.com in April 1999. With the rise in free online storage, mass distribution via the Internet and the democratisation of cheap media production tools, video was in early 2000 added to a number of blogs, to create what has been termed videoblogs (A contested term, living alongside vlog and video podcast to name a couple). With the increase in video hosting sites such as YouTube, Blip, Revver (and very recently the Norwegian Bubblare.no).
[vi] Web 2.0 is the name given to the current surge of innovative ‘social networking’ technologies that encourage people to communicate and work together over the Internet. Web 2.0, as opposed to Web 1.0 (early internet, email and web browsing), comprises of sites that allow users to collaborate and share information online within a single platform, sites that "get better" the more people use it through their ability to create networks through an "architecture of participation" (O'Reilly, October 2001).
[vii] See http://5thnovember.blogspot.com/ for an example of this.
[viii] See www.youtube.com. Youtube was also recently bought out by Google for $1 Billion.
[ix] Allowing anyone to upload videos onto a site is potentially a violation of copyright and YouTube is filled with copyrighted material, for example episodes of the DailyShow, the Colbert Report, movie trailers, music videos and snippets from news reports, soaps, and features. As of November 2nd 2006, Webcameron already has two clips of copyrighted material on the site, a snippet from a David Letterman show discussing George W. Bush (Top ten moments, two minutes ten seconds) and a clip from the film Brief Encounters (Wild horses wouldn't drag me away from England, forty seconds).
[x] One the Cameron website there are other videos older than the ‘Introduction to webcameron’ video but they were actually from another website http://dcindia06.blogspot.com/ which was the first foray into Blogging by David Cameron.
[xi] The replacement of the Thatcherite hand of freedom logo of the ‘old’ Conservatives by the ‘new’ Conservative’s green tree logo certainly seems like a masterstroke in representing the Conservatives as environmentally conscious and different from their past.

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