Friday, 30 April 2010

Election 2010: Final Hustings - Tooting

At the age of 26 I've only been able to vote in one general election so far, so as both a resident of Tooting and a professional journalist I attended the final hustings at Upper Tooting Methodist Church on Wednesday night with great interest. I was sceptical when I stepped into the hall as attendees seemed a bit thin on the ground, however by the time the debate started almost every seat was occupied. To add to the excitement the audience was blessed with a full quota of parliamentary candidates.

The group of hopefuls sat in front of me were incumbent Labour Tooting MP Sadiq Khan, Tory hopeful Mark Clarke and Liberal Democrat candidate Nasser Butt. Besides the main three parties the Green's were represented by Roy Vickery, UKIP by Strachan McDonald and Susan Johh-Richards completed the set as an independent candidate for Tooting.

Questions were submitted in advance to the chair and were picked to represent the concerns of constituents across a broad range of issues.

First, however, were the obligatory opening statements. In a slightly unexpected move Clarke opened the night with an opening statement that praised Khan on the work he had done in the constituency, informing the gathered electorate that they had worked together on a number of projects. Khan however made no such attempts at the niceties played out by his rival, keeping his opening statement fairly brief with the simple message that his work as the Member of Parliament for Tooting had been a "privilege." From the start the debate and audience attention seemed focused on the candidates from the two larger parties and despite a national shift of favour towards the Lib Dems the audience seemed to save their approval or distaste for Labour and the Conservatives, with a few heckles directed at McDonald of UKIP when the time seemed right.

On tuition fees Clarke towed the Tory line of wanting them to stay, while Khan also kept with the Labour line but said that it was important that there should be "no cap on aspiration." McDonald used the opportunity to rather predictably talk about Europe without much mention of universities and the independent John-Richards suggested that a better solution of financing might be to find education money in the budget for war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Green Candidate Roy Vickery maintained that his party's policy was that education can come at any stage in life and a university education is not the only option for the citizens of the UK. In one of his more succinct answers of the night, Nasser Butt claimed that there were already enough barriers to education in a nation where a "culture of Debt" is already established.

Not until the next question on electoral reform did we see the candidates begin to settle into their stride and cast off those initial nerves. Khan said that he, like his party, would like to introduce electoral reform using the "vote plus" system. This is the same kind of system used in the mayoral election and requires a voter to select not one, but several candidates in order of preference. McDonald agreed that the "alternative" vote plus system would be preferable while Butt stated that if the Liberal Democrats had any say in the next government it would fight for the system of proportional representation. Vickery meanwhile declared in a turn of phrase that was unclear if it was intended or not, that "when.... if Labour get re-elected I hope they will implement electoral reform." Clarke took on a more aggressive stance saying that those parties who call for electoral reform are the parties that historically have little chance of winning an upcoming election. He also, through rather tenuous links to voting reform, managed to include his opinions on both the Middle East and the economy. However, Clarke's comments did seem to strike a chord with the audience who gave him the hustings' first round of prolonged applause.

John-Richards certainly scored points in the next round of questions for being the first to reference genuine local issues. On the question of immigration policy she stated her opinion that there had to be a change in national policy, giving the example if a local man who had been detained as an illegal immigrant. Meanwhile, Vickery said that he was relaxed about immigration and received applause for his comment; "wouldn't you want to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq?" Clarke used the question as an opportunity to bring up 'bigotgate', receiving sizeable applause from the audience. He also admitted that "migrants have brought benefits to the country." Khan forcefully responded to the Tory line saying "the idea of a cap [on immigration] is glib and stupid," for which he received the loudest applause of the night so far.

On tackling the deficit, John-Richards said that she would like to see more transparency from the three main parties on their policies and indicated that if elected she would vote on the measures that would directly benefit those in the constituency. Butt gave very little of his own opinion choosing instead to purely focus on Liberal Democrat policy, which he said would mean no sweeping cuts in 2010 and extra money raised through the scrapping of ID cards and reform in the NHS. He did add that the Lib Dems were the only ones who had set out any clear figures on costing the handling of the deficit. Clarke said that the Conservatives would "tackle the debt properly" and that it was "time for honesty on the debt", while Khan admitted that savings did need to be made but questioned the sincerity of Clarke's concerns about national debt. "If Mark is so concerned on debt why is he punishing couples who are not married," said Khan, who later implored voters not to allow Clarke to "make excuses on cutting schools." For UKIP, McDonald attacked the parties slow response to dealing with the deficit and reminded the room that the "EU will not lose this opportunity to raise VAT."

A question on environment and climate change provided the almost universal response from the candidates that things definitely needed to change. The only deviation came from McDonald who stated that he didn't believe in Climate change. Butt reeled off a list of things that the Lib Dems would like to introduce but appeared waffly, mumbled and unclear. It was Khan who received the biggest applause for his answer in which he cited Climate Secretary Ed Miliband's comments how "now" was the opportunity to find solutions to tackle climate change. At this point in the debate the chair seemed unable to subdue a heckler who questioned Khan, but instead of getting flustered the labour hopeful addressed the audience member directly and responded calmly. When it was his turn, Clarke launched into an immediate attack on Khan's support for a third runway at Heathrow. He also questioned the science of some of the transport minister's figures. The audience appeared to have a mixed reaction to Clarke's response when he was pushed into placing climate change on his list of priorities, where he eventually settled on third. Khan had said it was his number one priority. Not surprisingly Vickery stayed true to his party colours and John-Richards said responded briefly that "we should respect the environment."

When it came to the image of politicians and maintaining a squeaky clean image, Butt provided a moment of somewhat unintentional comic relief when he passionately stated that there had been "no fiddling in my closet". Khan talked candidly about his expenses repayment and said that transparency was the way forward. An astute observer would have noticed Clarke and Butt appearing to confer with each other during Khan's response to be conferring during this time. Clarke, like the other previously unelected candidates, listed the things he would not do if he was elected and, following a heckle, categorically stated "I do not take any money from Lord Ashcroft." (At this point in the evening I received one of Mark Clarke's "news bulletin" emails. One has to wonder why people were sending out his emails instead of watching him debate?)

The candidates were offered the opportunity to make a closing statement, a chance for them to speak from the heart one last time before a final week of furious campaigning. Khan received the largest applause in his closing comments when he said that the people of "this community" were very important to him. Clarke received an almost but not quite equal round of applause for his remarks. Vickery meanwhile said that he was filled with hope, a message that was echoed by Butt who said that this election would bring a unique opportunity for change. John-Richards said that she would provide a real voice in parliament, not just an echo of the larger parties.

I would usually use this opportunity to offer my own comments on the general performances of candidates and go on to draw my own conclusions. However, I feel that in this election it may be better to give those everyone an opportunity to decide for themselves. My only comment would be that this seat is considered a marginal in 2010 and based on audience reaction on Wednesday night and the ferocity of the campaign in the area I think it is fair to say that Tooting will be a fight to the end between Labour and the Conservatives.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

How journalists, politicians and voters can use social media in a very new type of British election.

With around six months to go until a British general election, the campaigns are fast approaching. It's been almost five years since the last one and I think it is fair to say that a lot has changed since then. Back in 2005, Twitter wasn't even a glint in its founders' eye and YouTube was a place to watch funny videos of people falling off skateboards. Oh how times have changed, as Barack, Hillary, John and Sarah will undoubtedly tell you.....

During the US election those candidates bore the full force of a modern political campaign in an internet savvy, social networking, YouTube posting world. Can Gordon and Dave cope? What kind of election should they expect? How should we (and they) use new technologies to our advantage?

Here's my two cents......


It's really quite simple. Watch everything you do because everyone will be watching you. Watch everything you say because someone will be listening. Engage with the voters through all the means possible, and occasionally do it yourself rather than your designated social media people. We can tell if you are the one tweeting! Be creative, yes Gordon and Dave it looks good to have a photo of you paying your respects at a Remembrance Day service, but you don't need an official photographer there to get you into trouble. A quick snap from a passerby that "just happens" to make it online and the job is done.

Political Journalists:

Blog but you need to be consistent to build a regular following. Ensure you have structure to separate yourself from occasional bloggers and those just trying to say something for the sake of it. There are far too many blogs nowadays and those reporters with the insight and expertise to really provide cracking election commentary need to be heard. Blog readers will turn to you because you are supposedly the ones that can provide expert analysis. Entice them to your work and keep them by giving them what you do best. Monitoring Twitter is just as important as tweeting. Promote your blogs using tweets - work everything together. Finally, build some excellent and reliable social networking contacts. You can't be across everything all the time and if you use social networking intelligently you will find people more than willing to help you have eyes in many places.

Campaign teams:

Too much criticism has come out of recent elections that campaign teams have controlled too much of what the news media have access to. As much as I might not like the idea of things being so strictly controlled it does sometimes help journalists with access. However, it also gives an incentive for journalists to try and break through that barrier. A journalist will strive for an original story and in an election process and they will do everything they can to get it. Campaign staffers might not like it but it is the job of a journalist and the duty to the country's citizens to make sure that every story is told. On a more practical side of things campaign teams should be tweeting events and allowing interaction with their candidates and the voters. Twitter and social networking has broken down a lot of barriers in terms of access. I think if voters feel that their access is restricted, the outcome can only be negative. Because of a forward thinking campaign team, the Obama administration and DNC have an amazing amount of email addresses that they can continue to use. An intelligent campaigner in the UK would find a way to start collecting direct contact information for voters, despite the actual date of an election remaining unknown at this time.


I think the golden rule of the next general campaign for any voter will be "don’t take their word for it." And you shouldn't have to. It is my belief that a voter is a lot more empowered than ever before. The information and access you have now is unprecedented. Don't waste it. If you are an undecided voter or willing to be a little open minded then you will have more chances to get the information you want. However, it is still important to consider the bigger picture if you are doing independent research. Don’t just follow Dave on Twitter, follow Gordon, follow Nick as well, follow the Greens. Following the BNP or UKIP does not mean you support them but it does mean you will get what they say straight from the horse’s mouth rather than someone else's interpretation. Following someone on Twitter does not mean you are politically aligned to them but it does mean you have an interest in the political landscape as a whole. Watch television and video news online and read the national and local papers because you'll get a balance of stories on the major parties. However, you should also read the blogs because although impartiality is great, sometimes opinion is great too. Look at who writes the blog, work out their agenda, read an opposing blog. Finally, monitor YouTube for the latest campaign and amateur videos.

All of these give you power but of course, all this is irrelevant if you don't actually vote.


Friday, 14 August 2009

Will new media be saying "goodnight and good luck" to the tv news correspondent?

I think it is fair to say that there is a sense of impending doom regarding the digital takeover of everything in our lives. It took a friend of mine to point out that even in the world of news, people are getting worked up over new media and how they feel it is replacing the old news traditions. Although I don't believe it is changing our old news values, I do agree that some of the more archaic news traditions are on their way out. None more so than that of the TV correspondent.

Anyone going into news now thinking that they can be a John Simpson, a Kate Adie or a Christiane Amanpour is living in a fantasy world. There is no future for the jungle-suited, Holiday Inn-dwelling face of a broadcaster. Here's why:

As one former BBC correspondent once said "news is where the journalist is" and nowadays they really are in quite a lot of places, and they certainly don't look like they used to. Nowadays a credible source of news video or witness to the event can be anyone who happens to be there and is attached to their computer or smart phone. Everyone knows that local people get the most access to the story and that's just who these new newsmakers are. Once that resource is tapped in a constructive and organised way, the world is a news broadcasters oyster. Most major broadcasters have employed local stringers for years, now they just need to take it a step further. Schmoozing with the other journos at the hotel bar is now an unlikely way to get you access to the freshest pictures on a story because someone will have blogged it and received a few thousand hits before you've had a chance to knock back your first Martini. With a little bit more technology and foresight the social networkers of today will be our 'man in the field' tomorrow, posting credible updates on breaking news events and producing compelling, high quality video blogs.

Turn on your television right now and flip to a rolling news channel and you are very likely to see a report that has been cut and voiced by a producer/video journalist in a London, or Atlanta news hub. At the end of that report there is a good chance an anchor will casually throw it over to a live stand-up from the correspondent who has been sent there, or even worse, to a pre-recorded piece to camera. Why? I ask! Now before the abuse starts, hear me out and don't misunderstand what I am saying: in no way do I think that we should stop sending people to the field. It will always be very important to build a story on the ground and create original journalism. There would be no personal stories coming out of a conflict zone. No chance to understand the devastating consequences of a flash flood. And certainly little chance of getting the proud personal tour of a new home owned by kids who have escaped the slums of Mumbai simply because of a successful Hollywood movie. We need those news producers to do those jobs and we always will. That is what we journalists train for and aspire to, but what we don't necessarily need are the big personalities getting their face time. Surely news consumers won't complain if there is a little more story and a lot less ego.

So what part does social networking and new media play in the potential demise of the correspondent?

A strong shift in attention to web based news certainly seems to be a contributor in my opinion. Think about it....when you go online for news video you may go to the news website, click on the story and you will read up on the latest. There may well be a link to video. That report is rarely a voiced report and it is even more rare to see a piece to camera. After all, the text tells the story alongside the video and is easily and cheaply updated, whether it is by a producer/journalist in the field or a hub based producer across the latest wires. You can still get the same analysis and information; you just don't need a news 'celebrity' to give it to you. In another example, newspapers are striving to survive and are often branching out into video journalism (see the Guardian or the Times as examples). Here you will see amazingly shot and voiced pieces, or even subject led pieces minus a pretentious standup whacked on at the end.

I'm sorry but I can't not mention the T word. Producers and reporters have been updating their tweets straight from the field for a while now. Updating their followers and their viewers on the latest from the ground through Twitter is something that can only develop into a beautiful thing and I have little doubt that it will one day morph into the replacement for the beloved old-school TV correspondent. As yet, I am unsure what form this development will take, but I think there is a good chance that Twitter or social networking will be both the catalyst and the delivery mechanism.

Although it is sad that we will be losing a news institution, I think this change is positive and only improves the news for those who read it, view it, click it....tweet it. The demise of the correspondent shouldn't be looked at with regret, it should be viewed as an opportunity. An opportunity to push aside the eccentric caricatures of what reporters once were and get to the heart of the story and those who it affects.

Monday, 10 August 2009

A true journalist is a tweeting journalist

Despite the satellite feeds, fibre optic cables and Internet file transfers, the technology that a journalist comes into contact with on a daily basis is fairly limited and certainly not complex. However, until now a journalist has usually just been responsible for the news bit, leaving most of the techy stuff to the people who know how to do it or to the system set up for them by those who know how it works. It's definitely been the way things have worked for at least the last five years that I have been employed in broadcast news but now 2009 has seen everything change.

Gone are the old ways of news gathering. To stay ahead we are going to have to change. We are going to have to embrace the fast moving technology and we are going to have to adapt our editorial guidelines to be able to work with these changes as they occur. A journalist who in the past may have allowed others to point them in the right direction, will now have to be a journalist who is constantly monitoring their own online sources for the stories. If they don't, they will lose out and many old-school journalists are not going to like that.

The simple fact is that news gathering has changed.

News used to and still does drop on the wires. The story is then followed up by the news desk and we send people to cover it. When we don’t have anyone there we put in some calls, look up the local stringer or a freelancer and then pay them for their video (once the relevant release forms had been signed!). The footage is eventually edited and fed, or in some cases fed and then edited, and the whole process can take hours from the moment the first wire drops to the story being broadcast. People just aren’t that patient anymore and simple technology means that they don’t really have to be.

It’s now time to make way for the blogs, micro blogs, video blogs and perhaps most importantly….the Tweets.

Attention all journalists: Twitter is now one of your news wires and a tweeter is your eyewitness. Facebook is one of your men in the field and YouTube is your new stringer.

Some will say this simply isn't true. I'm afraid it is. Whilst recently looking into this subject during a heated discussion with a colleague about the merits of social networking for news, I proved how one news agency was directly quoting an Iranian tweeter and calling them a witness to the recent street protests there. It made no direct mention that the witness happened to be posting their account on twitter, and in my opinion it doesn't need to. Is quoting a tweet any less reliable than taking one over the phone? No. As long as your contact is reliable. The point is that your twitter contact can be that reliable.

Instead of the journalist's trusty contact book, we now have people that we are following on twitter. The best journalists work their twitter followers and contacts in the same way that they used to thumb through their little book or Rolodex. And just like then, when someone now asks me "where did you see that information" I am somehow reluctant to reveal the source. I wouldn't just tear the page out of my contact book and give you my personal source on a story, so why should I tell you who I followed? I'll lose my advantage. The people that I follow are my contacts in every way that they were when I wrote them down in a book - if you want them, you find them.

Until now the one thing that broadcasters and writers had over the raw online news sources was the "analysis" that they could provide on any given story and the professional treatment of the issue to give clear context and depth. 2009 is the year they should start worrying because people these days don't just want one person telling them their interpretation of events. They want to see the video or read the blog and know what those people who are there living the story are seeing, thinking and saying about it.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

If a blogger blogs and there is nobody around does it make a sound?

I have decided that it is time I became a better blogger. So you should watch this space for entertaining, informative or witty blog entries. If I haven’t written a proper blog within the next week then you have the right to be very angry with me. But nobody will know, because nobody will see this.