Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Twitter hashtags and the latest Leveson revelations

Today I did something I rarely have time to do: listened to the Radio Four PM programme - and it raised two issues but didn't link them: the latest revelations about the unacceptable links between politicians and the media from the Leveson Enquiry, and the political influence of the use of 'hashtags' on twitter.

It seems to me the issues are intimately linked: they are really about the same thing, who (or what) has influence on our politicians, and the policies they champion, whether that has a negative impact on British democracy, does it matter, and is there anything we can do about it.

I'll explain why, and try to answer the questions I've raised in turn.

Basically, it emerged that Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt acted as a 'cheerleader' for News International and James Murdoch. Just when he was being asked to judge, impartially, over Murdoch's bid to buy a controlling stake in Sky TV, it has emerged he was being far from impartial.

This is almost as scary as anything that's come out of Leveson: the idea that media moguls are close to top political figures and that this means that objective decisions aren't being made, even when the politicians concerned are acting in a quasi-judicial way.

Opposition politicians have called for Jeremy Hunt's resignation over the matter - but at the time of writing he's hanging on. I think they are right, but I can't imagine it'll make a lot of difference: Hunt's case is just symptomatic of the 'too close' relationship between politicians and the media.

The brief discussion about twitter examined the way that tweeps (as twitter users are known) use 'hashtags' (basically headlines preceded by a # symbol) to summarise or amuse the contents of their tweets (messages). It made the point that the Government's spin machine was thrown into a tizz by the emergence of the hashtags #pastytax and #grannytax before the budget speech was even over, and that the hashtags ended up influencing the way the media, the politicians themselves, and all the rest of us, ended up talking about the budget.

Famously, twitter only allows messages that are no longer than 140 characters - usually about 20 words tops - and hashtags are usually much shorter: rarely more than ten characters, and usually just one, often made-up but emotive, word long.

As I can testify, this calls for a certain rigour to any commentary on matters political - but the popularity of the platform has changed the way we talk about politics accordingly. It's also (usually) pretty immediate - and this speed and new style of political messaging has thrown the main political parties' spinners into, well, a spin.

But what we heard today was quite unsettling: that politicians are getting into the habit of asking themselves 'what will this look like on twitter?' when considering any policy decision at all - just as Blair and brown always feared the way a policy would look on the front page of the Murdoch-owned Sun or news of the World.

Politicians thinking about the communications implications of their decisions and announcements is nothing new, of course, (indeed it is perhaps a vital part of our democratic discourse since it is they, not the unelected civil servants, who must ultimately answer to the electorate) but the order is crucial: it's one thing to 'spin' the way a policy or sentiment is reported, quite another to let the fear of an amusing but damaging twitter hashtag influence that policy in the first place - and that's exactly what, the BBC implied today, is happening now.

So, in one case we're looking at the media exerting undue influence on politicians, and in another we're looking at the way a particular technology is being used exerting the influence. Neither of these influencing factors have necessarily got anything to do with either the best cause of action, or voters' desires.

It follows, of course, that both of these trends are undermining  good governance - and democracy itself.

We should resist this, as far as we can, by criticising politicians who 'let the comms tail wag the policy dog', and by working hard to expose the nature of relationships (whether they are characterised by inappropriate cosyness, bullying or even bribery) between the media and our elected representatives.

That's not to say we should run shy of using new technology - or the media.

As an elected politician at the local level, I think it's  incumbent on me to use twitter, and any other means of communications with residents, including (as long as it continues to exist anyway) traditional media like The Argus, to converse with residents about what are the best policies to pursue, and what I'm up to on voters' behalf.

That's just about being #accountable and doing #techdemocracy properly.

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