Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Political Perils Of The Internet

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‘Have you ever sent an email that could embarrass the President?’ is one of the questions asked as part of the confirmation procedure for the thousands of applicants to join the Obama Administration.

The question is generally taken as evidence of the near-impossible height to which Obama has raised the bar for people who want to work for him.

One reason why many well qualified individuals are reluctant to go into public service and why more than half of the jobs in the Administration remain unfilled.

But the Administration’s precautions also betray a sensitivity to the dangers of the internet which Derek Draper and Damian McBride would have been well advised to respect.

The “Red Rag” affair is a story of the internet about the internet and broken on the internet by Guido Fawkes (even if Paul Staines, Guido’s alter ego, did call in back-up from the dead tree press to give his scoop critical heft).

The internet has changed the rules for people in public life in two significant respects.

Firstly emails leave a trail of written evidence far more accessible to exposure than any paper trail or series of phone calls. Secondly, the blogosphere and websites offer the public quicker and easier access to potentially damaging revelations and allegations.

Long before his abortive foray into blogging, Damian McBride’s flaming emails were legendary around Westminster.

The Sunday Times reported on one he sent to me, claiming that the ex-cabinet Minister Stephen Byers could not be considered a legitimate spokesman for the Labour party.

A number of sites, including Iain Dale, Coffee House, ConservativeHome and, yes, Boulton & Co, have broken stories online. But in Britain Guido Fawkes' ‘Order Order’ has set the pace for scoops that have been politically significant.

Mr Staines says he is anti-government rather than anti-Labour, and it’s certainly the government which has had the worst from a right-of-centre anarcho-libertarian perspective he has forced resignations or enforced self criticism from the likes of Peter Hain, the John Smith Institute and now the Prime Minister’s private office.

In the US sites such as Politico, Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, The Page, and Drudge Report have become instant sources of information which bypass the print media and traditional broadcasters.

Obama’s comments about clinging to guns and religion were broken by Huffington – whose White House correspondent was given a question at President Obama’s first news conference. From Sarah Palin’s family to the Obama’s new dog web sites were the first source of information.

Meanwhile in America newspapers are closing, laying workers off and cutting back. Established news organisations increasingly see the internet as the main place to grow revenue, although it remains to be seen if the hopes of the likes of AP and the Wall Street Journal of charging more for content will work.

Increasingly large organizations see websites as the way to disseminate printed information, and increasingly pictures and video, about themselves on their own terms – just look at the 10 Downing Street or White House Websites.

But from TV networks to the top of politics, there’s a nagging anxiety that established organizations are too staid, too inflexible, too old fashioned to compete effectively in the world of Google, Youtube and Facebook.

This neurosis is particularly severe for New Labour which had always prided itself with being at the cutting edge of communications. The door of Number Ten was wide open to an over-confident self-proclaimed expert such as Mr Draper.

The moral of this story is to do what you do best. Politicians, let alone governments and political parties are not journalist, media organisations, or lone gun campaigners, and are ill advised to try to be so. It will end in tears.

At Sky News we believe we have the skills, the news gathering resources and the reputation to make a big useful contribution on line.

With millions of websites out there – we think there’s still a big need for websites you like and trust.

Essentially we are providing the journalism we have always offered in new formats. I expect that other news organisations would say the same kind of thing.

That doesn’t mean we will become Guido Fawkes, even if we are sometimes competing with him. But the point about Mr Fawkes is that he understands what he is trying to do and is putting his heart and soul into it.

Political blogging is not just a matter of thinking up a few smears and sending them out on email.

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