Cameron and Zuckerberg: a political version of the video nasty
Tony Blair invited Oasis round for tea. Gordon Brown tried smiling on YouTube.
And yesterday, David Cameron tried to show his instinct for contemporary popular culture by releasing footage of a videoconference call he had made to Mark Zuckerberg, the youthful founder of Facebook, the world's most popular social networking site. In it, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland invited Facebookers to put forward solutions on how to solve the nation's £800bn public debt.
"I mean, basically, we've got a big problem here," explained the British leader, smiling into his webcam with the manner of a contestant opening up an envelope and reading out a challenge on a reality television show. "We need to save a hu-u-uge amount of money, we've got the biggest budget deficit anywhere in the G20. This year we are borrowing more than almost any other European nation."
Despite the efforts of Downing Street spin doctors to show how in touch the Prime Minister was with modern technology, the stage-managed, split-screen juxtaposition of the pair made them look as if they were from different worlds. Mr Cameron, in dark suit, blue necktie and crisp white shirt, sat in front of a library of heavily bound volumes, symbols of another communication age. Zuckerberg, 17 years his junior but with an online global network that reaches almost 500 million, sat in a bare room, dressed in a plain T-shirt.
"The idea of using a social networking site to help harness people's ideas about how we get value for money and how we meet this huge challenge, I think is a great one," concluded the Prime Minister. "So thank you for, erm, engaging!"
Zuckerberg's response came from deep in his throat, in a voice sounding like Kermit the Frog. "We are delighted to be in this relationship with you guys, to harness the energy and ideas Facebook users have in order to help the UK public save money," he said.
For two minutes and 52 seconds, they congratulated each other for their "innovation". The Prime Minister noted that such a consultation exercise would normally cost "millions of pounds, even billions of pounds" but "with your help we are basically getting this public engagement for free". Savings, you see.
Zuckerberg lowered his eyelids at the flattery. "Well, yeah, we're trying," he said. Perhaps he was aware of where the video would end up being posted. The Democracy UK on Facebook page has an impressive 272,900 friends but they are not obvious pals of Dave, having declared Nick Clegg to be the winner in all three of the pre-election televised debates.
The Conservative leader was widely seen as having gradually upped his game over the course of those contests, but this latest film is excruciating. There hasn't been a political video nasty like it since Gordon Brown's great YouTube adventure. Mr Brown, his taut grin a signal of discomfort, was persuaded to march across a lush green Westminster lawn, looking like the star of a Flymo advert but shouting: "Together we can fight back against this international recession."
In the Facebook film, Zuckerberg's promise of "great ideas" from his 26 million British users prompted Mr Cameron (who once mocked social media site Twitter with the comment "too many tweets makes a twat") to exclaim: "Brilliant!" It was, he added, "great to see you the other day", a reference to Zuckerberg's recent visit to Downing Street. "Hey, you too," came the polite response.
The Prime Minister wanted to hang out some more. "Although this is a very good videoconference, a very good way of doing this, next time you're in town come and look us up," he enthused, with a beam and a nod.
And then it was time to turn to the users, to release the energy and unharness those ideas. "Merge Facebook and the Government," came the first post, from Rich Jammin' Clare. "They're both shit." The abuse rained down. "Two twats side by side," observed Andrew Tisdall. "Ugh," said one, succinctly. "That's really weird," said another. After three hours, 186 people had hit the thumbs up button in support of the video, though Marc Beaton called for the site to introduce a "dislike" button. "Can someone explain the point of the video?" asked Dan Smith. "It just seemed like a great way of the Tories saying: 'We are down with the people and we want you to all know about it.'" It was, he opined, an exercise in "self-congratulatory syncophatism [sic]".
Rather depressingly, even those few who applauded the Prime Minister for "giving something new a go" had little to offer in the way of money-saving suggestions.
To be involved in shaping government policy in this way is a remarkable first for Facebook, another great publicity coup. But the initiative doesn't appear to have made David Cameron many new friends.
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