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This is written by Andy from The Spicy Cauldron.
Unless you have an inner blogger, don’t bother, wrote Emily Bell in the November 27 edition of The Guardian. It’s good advice for the Conservative leader David Cameron, whose attempts to instigate viral cyberspace campaigns, including the now-notorious WebCameron, are woefully misconceived, laughable and vaguely sinister.
Bell’s basic argument is that nothing rings true of what the Tories are doing online to try to engage the yoof vote, and I for one agree with her. Presumably the Tories’ big idea is that all those just about ready to cast their first-ever votes are sat in front of computers all day, and can’t wait to engage with political material on the Web. Yummy.
Of course, while it may be true that many of our young people spend far too much time in sedentary non-activities, the rest of us outside Tory (and very likely New Labour) circles know they are far more likely to be downloading music without paying for it using P2P filesharing software, chatting inanely on MSN Messenger or, mostly but not exclusively the boys, downloading porn to address their 24-hour, 7-days a week itch. Sex is, after all, for nearly all teenage boys and a significant number of adult men, the most-often thought-about subject matter from waking to sleeping (and then in their dreams). It’s probably something parents think a lot about too, worrying about their daughters becoming teen mums, although the Internet has never, to date, got any young girls pregnant, and provides opportunities for safer sex education when used responsibly by guardians and teachers.
By the time a young man gets to the age of 15, I seriously doubt well-intentioned parental safeguards such as cyber-patrol software or voluntarily self-rated blogs can come between them and pictures of naked ladies (or men). I suspect that while many of our schoolchildren leave school with rudimentary reading, writing and mathematical skills at best, those same kids can run circles around their parents when it comes to breaking the shackles placed upon the inner workings of computers.
Bell notes the ways in which Cameron’s cybernautical adventures simply don’t ring true:
While the technology and jargon is all there, the true intent to engage isn’t. Hence Cameron’s videos, blog posts, etc, never veer into the realm of the conversational. They never refer to sources outside Cameron or point to material he’s seen or read, or link to people he’s talked to. It is a one-way diatribe of not-quite policies.
No. That would be far too risky. The basic dilemma for politicians is that the online environment is toxic to their usual antics on TV and radio. While they can do quite well spinning their lies and distortions on BBC 1′s Question Time or during five-minute news programme slots, their tactics become more transparently contrived and false when trying to implant their messages into forums such as YouTube. The public can only stomach so much propaganda, and the more it tries to be subtly invasive, the more we recognise the danger of it, and feel ever-more insulted that politicians would rather snare our support covertly than address the real pressing issues of the day.
Not only that, but very few adults, let alone young people, willingly type the addresses of political parties’ websites into their browsers. If we do, we know full well that we’re not getting to get truth, or fun, or come away having learned anything positive. Instead, we come away from such sites depressed if we weren’t depressed already.
We know what we’re going to get for exercising our fingers in this way is gloss, spin and very little substance. None of the three main political parties in the UK – or any for that matter – have enthusiastically grasped the notions of interactivity, open commentary and overall engagement with the public via their websites. It’s too risky a strategy. Adopting the standard blogger’s approach would make it easier for the people to make their views known, and that would never do. Many of our views would be unpleasantly truthful, highlighting just why there is such a massive gap between politicians and the people.
Those of us who have ever had cause to write to our MPs know just how convoluted a process it is, even via email, and that often we don’t get replies or the responses we do get do nothing to address the questions we raised with our elected representatives in Parliament. Letters and emails encourage the natural tendency these days on the part of politicians to obfuscate, to rattle off the party lines and give nothing of themselves away. Distance is maintained, as it is with the conventional websites our politicians present to us.
We get shop windows when what we want are drop-in centres.
Some brave politicians blog. Some less-than-brave politicians blog but don’t allow comments to be left on their sites, or when they do, moderate them to ensure only visitors who are on message with the party faithful get to see their comments appear. It is a brave politician indeed who, like the majority of bloggers, allows open commentary. We can, of course, allow them some leeway when it comes to spam or abusive messages – these are, after all, the bane of most bloggers’ daily lives when it comes to maintaining their sites.
Embracing a medium does not mean just copying a format, it means understanding the rules of engagement.
It’s interesting to note that while you can leave comments unmolested on blogs run by The Guardian, if you leave a comment on blogs run by the Daily Mail, they won’t appear straightaway and sometimes don’t appear at all. You’ve got one of the most important differences between left- and right-wing right there. The only problem is, the public don’t know these days for certain what the overall political leanings of our leading parties are, because they go out of their way to hide them. Labour has long been ashamed of association with the left, while the Tories are now ashamed of their right-wing tendencies and try to keep them under wraps. We get told everyone is centrist. What the heck is that? It does nothing to prevent the right-wing excesses of our current government.
Neither the Tories or Labour are centrist. It’s a lie put out to comfort us, to make us think nobody wants to rattle the cage, disturb the status quo. But life is all about change. We can’t navigate a central course. It’s an impossibility. We are veering to the right while those steering the ship keep telling us our course is true, and straight. Our government and official opposition can both be likened to an errant supermarket trolley, always going off to the right no matter the direction we really want to go in.
Many politicians fear exposing their personalities truthfully online because while they may engender positive views of themselves among the public, they also risk the media attacking them for being honest and real, and a queue of fellow politicians will be lining up to condemn them in the hope of trashing their political views and credibility among their peers, for whom the desire to be credible only extends to the outer territories of Whitehall or local council offices, and so the idea of what constitutes credibility to this breed of people is very different to what the public has long demanded, and needs for confidence to be restored.
There was a time when mass media was young, the public largely in awe of the magic of radio and television, believing without question what was reported in newspapers because, well, journalists belonged to an honourable profession. They were truth-seekers, we thought, often putting their lives at risk to dig up the truth. Right the way through to the dawn of the Internet, or Information, Age, politicians had an easier time of it persuading the public as to what to think, and how to act on the messages being delivered to them. When exposed, the machinery of the press swiftly brought them down and so some kind of equilibrium was maintained.
Of course, while most journalists were sincere seekers after truth, there were always those who weren’t. And their numbers have grown. Just take a look at Fox News, the much-maligned US TV channel which is available to view, if you really must take a gander, on Sky TV here in the UK. The public has learned over time to become more media-savvy, growing wise to how everything from film edits to camera angles can be used to support lies and make them believable. We recognise that powerful men own the newspapers, TV stations and radio channels, using them to promote their own ideas on what is right and what is wrong.
Invariably, these men are viciously judgemental, power-hungry enemies of government by the people, for the people. Why? Because that kind of government, when truly operated, doesn’t bring in the money as much as the current arrangements do. The unholy alliances between these men, multinational big businesses, and politicians are well documented in many countries. They refuse to recognise that the jig is up, that their secrets are, to some extent, out – if only with regards to how they operate, if not yet what they’re actually up to behind closed doors. Time will tell.
Blogging has proved itself but one tool, albeit a vital one, that can be put to effective use in exposing political scandals and hypocrisy. It is no wonder that exceptionally oppressive states, like China, react to the blogosphere by seeking to block most of it being accessed from within their borders. Nothing scares major- or minor-league tyrants more than honest and unfettered criticism being available for all to read, comment on, and draw conclusions from.
And so more and more of us stopped believing, and started questioning, even scoffing at those who once had our respect – journalists, politicians, even the police. While technology has never been a greater risk to our civil liberties than it is today, with ID cards, blanket CCTV surveillance across the country, electronic tagging and more, in parallel to all these scary developments we have learned how to decode and rationalise the messages pumped into our homes, cars, offices and shopping malls. We tut with disgust when we stand at urinals where, as captive audiences, we are subjected to ads on small LCD screens for loan companies and cars. We turn away from the same screens now appearing at supermarket checkouts, petrol pumps and incorporated into window displays. We skip through ads on TV using our fast-forward buttons. We laugh at how bad things have become when we see sponsored dramas coming out of the US where lead characters open up laptops clearly branded with the Apple logo, or, in the case of one of the newest shows called A Town Called Eureka, Cisco Systems.
We think, if we have to pay for TV subscriptions, if we then have to handle ad breaks where the volume goes up several decibels to make sure we can’t avoid the messages if we pop into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, if we then have ads for the next show slicing the end credits in half down the screen, and, on top of that, have actors brandishing branded goods or cameras zooming in on the latest hardware, what next? Pointing arrows to tell us how much we can get this or that for, and where to buy? Actors pausing mid-drama to remind us who the sponsors are?
The more we pay, the more we are subjected to advertisements, copying restrictions, impositions as to what playback devices we can use with certain filetypes. Those of us paying a premium for HD TV boxes often find we are more restricted when it comes to making and saving recordings than those people who are content to stick with VCRs and tape.
Those of us with any sense switch off, physically or mentally, or learn the wisdom of recording the shows we want to watch rather than enduring the constant interruptions when watching anything at the time it is broadcast. We learn we can get news from so many sources online that there’s really not much point buying a newspaper unless we really want the DVD film they’re giving away with the latest issue.
The very last thing we want to do is add to the advertisement overkill in our lives by willingly visiting propagandist political websites or searching the likes of YouTube to watch Cameron’s latest jolly wheeze. Bell is quite right: if you have no inner blogger, don’t bother. I would extend that by saying, if you have nothing new to offer, don’t bother. If you can’t give us honesty and policies that aim to improve the lives of everyone, don’t reach for that webcam and don’t try to be hip and trendy when we never, ever, see you out of a suit – or when we do, you’re still wearing the kind of attire that goes down well at Oxford and Cambridge.
If you want to join in the online revolution, you’ve got to start presenting us with truly revolutionary ideas – and making promises you will keep – on how to stop the rot in the real world. Coming up with those ideas, making those promises, requires no technological support whatsoever. What’s needed is a person of good conscience, political conviction, and intelligence. From current and past evidence, neither David Cameron nor Tony Blair – nor Gordon Brown – fit the bill entirely. Intelligence? Yes. Political conviction? Maybe. Good conscience? I really don’t think so. That is surely indicated by the presence of persistent honesty and integrity, and I see no signs of either in mainstream British politics.
You can read the entirety of Emily Bell’s rather astute article here.