The Media Column: Can traditional broadcasters capitalise on the first ‘digital election’?

Party managers are aware that the best-laid plans can instantly be blown off course by a rogue tweet or a mocking video sent viral via BuzzFeed

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The Independent Online

“It’s going to be the most anarchic election in living memory,” predicts Kev Kharas, editor of Vice UK, the youth-focused digital channel winning awards for its innovative news coverage. “It would be a shame to have to cover it in the same grey, old boring way.”

General election campaigns have traditionally followed a daily grid of early morning press conferences staged by the three main parties and rigorously-controlled photo opportunities for the party leaders.

But party managers are aware that the best-laid plans for the 7 May poll, already the most unpredictable for a generation, can instantly be blown off course by a rogue tweet or a mocking video sent viral via BuzzFeed. The parties which best harness the power of social media though could see the benefits in those vital marginal seats. There is a huge appetite for information about the election among an 18-35 aged audience which lives through their mobile devices but is resistant to the conventional methods of political communication.

“Politics was the most discussed topic on Facebook in the UK in 2014,” revealed Elizabeth Linder, Facebook’s politics and government specialist for the Europe, Middle East and Africa region. “This year there have already been more than 21 million posts, comments and ‘likes’ associated with the campaign. We’ve seen in other campaigns that Facebook has increased voter turnout.”

Ms Linder, a native Californian, has given seminars to MPs and campaign managers on how to use Facebook as an electoral tool. “Initially politicians thought just being on Facebook was sufficient. But you have to use your presence to engage in a two-way dialogue with your audience. This will be a conversational election. It’s a seismic shift in the way politics is conducted.”

Henry Langston / VICE UK

Ms Linder praised the Labour MP Dan Jarvis for using his Facebook page to share family photographs as well as information about his constituency work, giving an insight into his personality.

Silence is golden when communicating visually with a Facebook audience. “Around 65 per cent of videos are digested on mobile but people are often out in public scrolling their news feeds and they have the sound turned down. Labour sent an effective message in this campaign with a six-second silent video illustrating the rise in waiting lists, using a simple graph.”

The Conservatives have been running six-second attack ads from their CCHQ press office Vine account and sharing them on Twitter. Labour used the social buzz around “the white/gold, black/blue” dress debate to produce a topical video mocking the Tories and Lib Dems, which picked up 80,000 instant loops, data analytics platform Burst found. “The parties are missing a trick by not taking the video medium to the next level, which is producing short-form video messages to potential younger voters with short attention spans,” said Simon Bibby, Burst’s co-founder.

Social media is not simply useful for delivering quick-hit viral videos though. Facebook can be a notice board for detailed policy debate. Facebook’s data shows that health was the most discussed election-related topic in 58 per cent of UK constituencies (377 of the 650) between January and March, including the constituencies of Ed Miliband (Doncaster North), Ed Balls (Morley & Outwood), David Cameron (Witney), and Theresa May (Maidenhead).

Europe/ Immigration was the most discussed issue in South Thanet, the seat being contested by Nigel Farage but health, the economy and tax had more salience across Britain. “People will read lengthy posts which allow people to sink their teeth into an issue,” said Ms Linder, citing a joint article penned by David Cameron and Barack Obama ahead of the Nato summit in Wales last year, which was posted on the Prime Minister’s Facebook page.

Jake Lewis / VICE UK

Nick Clegg reached out to a fresh audience by taking part in a Q&A session on Men’s Health magazine’s Facebook’s page, Ms Linder said.

Mr Clegg however was squeezed out of the first major social media event of the election, last Thursday’s leader’s “debate” on Channel 4 and Sky News, which was the was second most tweeted about programme on television this year, generating 500 million messages.

Some new media upstarts have yet to prove their worth in the campaign. BuzzFeed’s live Q&A with David Cameron was watched by just 10,000 viewers. It advanced BuzzFeed’s path from listicles provider to serious political player but stuck to a largely conventional interview format.

Vice Media, which enjoys 10 million subscribers to its YouTube channel, is challenging the BBC head on with a series of original online films that will “bypass Westminster-by-numbers coverage, and instead explore the societal and cultural issues affecting young people in the UK today”.

Made by Vice’s own network of young film-makers, and not bound by Ofcom’s requirements for political balance, the films will examine issues such as the housing crisis, poverty and young people’s disillusionment with the political system.

The first film, Regeneration Game, which launches on today, promises to explore the “human cost of Boris Johnson’s regeneration housing legacy”.

Vice’s Kharas said: “What that election result will say more loudly than anything else is that Britain is confused, complicated and changing at a quicker pace than its political system can keep up with. Vice will be focusing its efforts out in the field, seeing how government policies play out at street level, away from the Westminster echo chamber.”

The conventional broadcasters are promising innovations too. The BBC is creating an interactive “coalition builder” and a Generation 2015 panel of 200 young voters from around the UK who will appear on BBC News outlets using the hashtag #inmyshoes to tell the politicians what they are thinking. ITV News is creating the Daily Dose, a video round-up of the day’s news specifically designed for social media, and The Pitch, condensing the main party policies into short, bite sized videos for mobile consumption. This campaign could finally live up to previous promises that we are about to witness the “first digital election”.

Newmark ruling gives Ipso a new headache

Sir Alan Moses, chair of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), predicted that the result of the regulator’s first high-profile adjudication, a decision to exonerate the Sunday Mirror for its sting on Conservative MP Brooks Newmark, would produce both flak and plaudits.

Ipso found that the investigation, which used a fake Twitter account purporting to belong to a Tory-supporting PR to procure naked pictures of the minister, was justified in its use of subterfuge because the story was in the public interest. Newmark made no complaint but the new regulator undertook its own investigation.

The campaign group Hacked Off complains that Ipso had no power to demand information from the Sunday Mirror. This was an “informal investigation without any teeth or relevance… which demonstrated the impotence of Ipso.”

Ipso has yet to sign up national papers including The Guardian, The Independent and the Financial Times and talks are ongoing to establish what powers the regulator should have when it initiates investigations. Sir Alan, a former Lord Justice of Appeal, admitted that agreeing the ruling by committee presented some difficulty for him. “If you are a judge, it’s easy,” he said.

Downton’s global fans dismayed by farewell

As the BBC seeks to keep Top Gear on the road without its driving force Jeremy Clarkson, ITV quietly confirmed the sixth series of Downton Abbey will be its last.

Producers Carnival Films called time on a drama which has become a global phenomenon. It is watched by 50 million viewers in China and drew 13 million US viewers last year on the PBS network. Peter Fincham, ITV’s director of television, suggests the decision was the broadcaster’s. “We all thought very carefully about the right moment to bring something so special to a close that felt editorially right, and left viewers wanting more,” he said.

Gareth Neame, Carnival’s managing director, said the announcement was a blow to the drama’s international broadcasters. “They would like the show to continue for as long as possible.”

A Downton movie is in the works but Julian Fellowes, the series creator, wants to focus on new period drama, The Gilded Age, set in 1880s New York, for NBC. Downton could not continue without Fellowes’ vision, a lesson the BBC might consider as it seeks to persuade a new presenter to fill Clarkson’s stonewash Wranglers.