Ian Burrell: Issues, not politics: why the public don't care for Westminster tweets

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The Independent Online

The blogger Guido Fawkes will like this no more than Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC – but the media in all its many modern guises is failing miserably to engage the public in politics.

And it's not true that people find the whole thing a bore. New research shows that three-quarters of us claim to be interested in party politics, the workings of Westminster and the decisions that affect local education and health policies.

Yet as the British media has evolved, rushing to personality-based stories, the lobby journalists, bloggers, television producers and political editors have struggled to turn the drama of Parliament into a narrative that the public – outside those people working in the Westminster village – finds compelling.

This sad state of affairs is sharply revealed in a study of the political media conducted by Britain Thinks, which this month conducted a poll on the public's tastes in political media. It showed that only person in 20 has bothered to follow an MP on Twitter in the past two months – in spite of the apparent excitement created by Diane Abbott's recent racist tweet gaffe, Ed Miliband's clumsy Twitter tribute to Bob Holness and Energy Secretary Chris Huhne's accidental tweeting of private messages. Not to mention the prolific use of the platform by key parliamentarians in the phone hacking saga such as Tom Watson and Chris Bryant.

The Democracy Live feature on the BBC website is invaluable for those wanting to keep abreast of events at the Leveson inquiry, but 86 per cent of those questioned by the pollsters had never visited the site. Indeed, most (54 per cent) of those questioned had never looked at the politics page of the BBC website.

For all the talk of how the internet has mobilised the public to political causes around the world, the array of political bloggers that has emerged in the UK has found only a niche audience.

The feisty Guido has attracted notoriety in Westminster circles for his right-wing website, but it was unknown territory for 90 per cent of the public and only one in 50 of those polled admitted to having visited the site more than twice in the past two months. The specialist Politics Home and Politics UK sites managed only a similar level of impact while left-leaning bloggers on Labour List and Left Foot Forward were a regular destination for only 1 per cent of respondents.

Of course newspapers have greatly expanded their footprints as they have moved online and the Daily Mail site now has a monthly audience of 80 million. But only 16 per cent of the 2,048 respondents to the Britain Thinks poll said they had visited a broadsheet newspaper site (The Independent, Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, The Guardian or The Times) on more than two occasions in the past two months.

The research was commissioned by an organisation called Wilkes, which unsurprisingly is pleased with the findings because it believes they demonstrate a vacuum into which it can launch a new form of online political journalism next year.

Wilkes is being set up by Jonathan Heawood, the director of the freedom of expression organisation English Pen, with the support of Martin Bright, the head of the job creation charity New Deal of the Mind and a prominent political journalist. It will be staffed by experienced journalists alongside some of the young bloods currently emerging from media studies courses only to find a dearth of employment options.

Named after the radical journalist and MP John Wilkes, who was arrested for sedition for his political commentary in 1763, the site is intended to be politically impartial with a board of trustees recruited from across the spectrum.

"Being non-profit makes sure it is politically and commercially independent and that we are not peddling the line of a proprietor or shareholders," says Heawood. "That's important to add a different voice to the landscape and it shows the public that you represent their interests first."

He says the site will be mostly free to access ("the whole point is to get people engaged who aren't so it has to be free to them") but will also offer paid-for content to politics junkies.

Heawood points to findings in the Britain Thinks poll that show that 65 per cent of people said they were interested in how the decisions taken by MPs affected their local area and that 55 per cent wanted to know how actions in Westminster affected their industry or job sector.

He says he hopes to find an audience among people who are "campaigning for local hospitals or schools" but not engaging in the political media.

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