Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 26 October 2009

Will Howells raises an interesting question about Twitter

In the last few days I have been listening to the first few episodes of "The Pod Delusion", a collaborative podcast about "interesting things". There have been some good contributions so far on subjects as diverse as Can you be a Formula 1 fan and still green?, a review of the first UK "Amazing Meeting" and what should young children be taught?

Lib Dem Will Howells is one of the semi-regular contributors and something he said in his review on Gordon Brown's recent conference speech has raised an interesting question for me. He talked about how all the people on Twitter were live-tweeting the speech (of which I was one) and how when he got to his section about young single mothers and the group accommodation they would be provided with, we all decided what we thought of the policy within literally a couple of minutes. I remember this and indeed recall that Brown had barely moved onto his next topic before I started to see tweets denouncing the policy as "Gulags for slags", "Huts for sluts" and various comments about it being a return to a "poorhouse" mentality. I doubt there was anyone following it on Twitter who had not seen a multitude of conclusions about this well before Brown had even sat down.

Will's comment on this mentioned that of course for the journos in the hall there would have been press people ready to brief them directly after the speech to put Brown's words into context. The usual thing of "explaining what he really meant". The thing is though there is no briefing for those on Twitter or blogs. Instead we just make our minds up, based on what we have heard and then post our views online usually very quickly.

What this little vignette has made me wonder about is the longer term viability of the old way of doing things. Speech is drafted. Advance copy is circulated to the press. Speech is given. Speech is "put into context". Hacks go away and write it up with this context made clear. OK, I know it doesn't always work perfectly as journalists have their own agenda but it is the system. The "Gulags for slags" line was very amusing and was around the internet like wildfire within minutes. So much so that the mainstream media (many of whom also tweet and blog) picked it up straight away and it found its way into the newspaper coverage of the speech too.

In 1994, when Blair made his famous "Clause 4" speech to Labour conference, he was not totally clear about what he meant. He spoke in generalities and left it up to his spin doctors to brief the hacks afterwards as to what was really going on. I wonder how all this would have gone down were he doing it today.

Perhaps what will start to happen is that politicians will realise that being vague about something in a speech and then "clarifying" it in a briefing afterwards will not work in the world of Twitter and blogs.

Who knows, they might even have to start saying what they actually mean in a way that cannot easily be misinterpreted....


Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

Politicians are now properly and more importantly demonstrably accountable for their own words for these can (very often) be replayed on YouTube etc. and moreover can be refuted in the same medium with use made of juxtaposition of original clips.

This new phenomenon was witnessed in the last US Presidential election and it is a very powerful means of challenging inexactitudes.

More interestingly, to my mind, it ought to represent a means of doing away with politicians whose adherence to intellectual rigor is far short of what it should be. (It is a surprise to me how thick many politicians are - notwithstanding that many are skilled at handling the public.)

Lonely Wonderer said...

I'm not so optimistic. Yes, shared critique can happen more quickly afterwards, without the mediation of journalists who've been spun. But spinning these days often starts days before the speech, when public and journalists alike are softened up for event.

Moreover, politicians know that to avoid easy fisking they can become better at either Byzantine phrasing or homely cliches in their rhetoric. So there's no automatic drive to higher standards of political argumentation.