UK Election media review: are our politicians tackling the issues?

We are five weeks away from the UK General Election. That’s right, five weeks.

A shock, given that we have yet to see any real debate or discussion from our future leaders on any of the things that actually matter to people’s lives. Or have we?

I decided to test this hunch. I reviewed the media coverage from the past week to uncover whether the key parties bothered to say anything of real substance and interest on the big issues that matter to the electorate. Or have they just spent the week joshing and jockeying between themselves for kicks. Let’s see shall we.

> So what matters to the electorate?

ComRes/ITV, March 2015
ComRes/ITV, March 2015

First, the election issues. According to the latest poll by ComRes/ITV, the big issues people care about are: the NHS, immigration, the economy, and welfare/benefits — in that order. That list broadly matches a BBC/Populus survey from January, which showed that the issues the electorate most want the media to cover are: NHS, the economy, immigration, welfare/benefits/pensions, and jobs and pay. I decided to go with ComRes as it’s more up to date. And shorter.

> How do we know if politicians have said anything substantive on these issues?

A quick and dirty method. I reviewed the front pages of three newspapers — The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Sun — for the week 17 March – 24 March — to see if an announcement had made the headlines. Big thanks to Nick Sutton’s Tomorrow’s Papers Today tumblr…it was surprisingly hard to find an archive of front pages.

To be honest, I didn’t have time to review articles beyond the front page, but I figured that if the party/politician is announcing something of real substance, it should make it onto the front page. (Admittedly, there are many arguments that challenge this assumption. Having been a government press officer for a time I know first hand just how much news from government totally fails to get media pick-up. But that’s another blog.)

Anyway. To get a bit more 24/7 coverage in the sample and to make up for my front page bias, I also reviewed the Facebook feeds for C4 News, ITV News and BBC News for the same period. What I was looking for was any policy announcement-led news from any party on any one of these big issues over the past week.

> Here are the results. 

Hot issue number 1 – the NHS (number of pieces of coverage: 4)

There was nothing at all from any party on any of these media channels until today. This evening, Channel 4 made a valiant effort to get the parties to say something of interest on healthcare. They invited both the health secretary, Lid Dem Health minister and shadow health minister on the show for a ‘#YourNHS debate’. They served three Facebook posts on the matter over the course of this evening (as well as an earlier post on Cameron being shouted at at an Age UK event.) There was some discussion between the parties on how to meet the £8billion shortfall in the NHS budget by 2020. Few clear differences emerged however, with Jeremy Hunt and Andy Burnham largely agreeing with each other that treating cancer is ‘a good thing’. Thank god.

But aside from that moment on Channel 4 today, a deafening silence from the politicians on the NHS.

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 20.57.58


Hot issue number two – immigration (number of pieces of coverage: 0)

Nothing at all from the politicians on these chosen media channels all week. The Guardian is however running its own special report on the benefits of immigration, presumably in the absence of anyone else making a cogent argument on the matter. But putting aside this media-led reporting, none of the major parties have tackled immigration in any way this week. Probably this is a good thing – at least it keeps Farage off our screens for a little longer. So let’s not complain too much on this one.

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 20.58.34


Hot issue numbers three and four, the economy and welfare (number of pieces of coverage: 24)

The budget announcement on Thursday managed to put a big tick in the ‘Economy’ box, and a bit of a pencil mark in the ‘Welfare’ box. Well done George — front page and Facebook news points across all outlets for a pile of measures including cutting income tax rates, ISA benefits, some changes to pension pots and extra funding for mental health services.

Admittedly, this a bit of a cheat, as the budget isn’t strictly a manifesto pledge from a potential new government. But still; I was becoming a bit depressed by they sheer lack of announcements on the issues (without the budget we would have been on zero again). So I’m including it. Policies were announced and plans were made, all on issues that people actually care about, and in a substantial enough way to make it onto all three front pages. The Sun’s effort was particularly entertaining. (It’s worth noting this was the ONLY political story to make The Sun front page all week. Zayn Malik’s hiatus from 1D has been much bigger news in their world.) tumblr_nlfj3ociQF1u5f06vo1_1280

And what about all the general leadership / coalition / candidate based shenanigans? (number of pieces of coverage: 14)

Setting aside the coverage on the budget, it’s here that we see the biggest overall volume of front page and FB news across all media outlets. Whether it’s Boris pretending to look flattered that Cameron has named him a potential successor; Salmond boasting about all the power-broking he will be able to do in a Labour-SNP voting bloc; or Cameron finally acquiescing to a 7-way TV debate, these ‘news stories’ made the front page of all but The Sun (of course. see above.), and into the newsfeeds of all three TV stations.

What does this tell us?

Nothing good. But maybe they just haven’t really gotten started yet? Here’s hoping.


Egypt: Why restricting the internet won’t stop this tide

In the 16th Century the Catholic Church faced arguably the greatest threat of its long history, not from armies or kings, but from the spread of ideas and information. The printing press was at this time becoming a common feature in cities and towns across Europe, and printers and writers were generally considered to be radicals and rebels intent on disturbing the status quo. A threat to stability. A threat to traditional notions of power.

Luther nail's his 95 theses to a church door

The church and state made various attempts to wrestle control of this new communications technology – printers had to apply for licences to operate their machines, while at the same time the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books) swelled in Italy, France and the Netherlands, banning the works of scientists, astronomers, theologians; anyone with ideas and evidence that might challenge traditional thought.

Of course, you know the rest. Efforts to restrict the flow of information might have slowed things down, but it couldn’t stop the tide. Lutherism and Calvinism charged on regardless, leading to the reformation and the birth of the Protestant church. Copernican theories of astronomy, such as Galileo’s findings that the Sun did not move around the Earth, eventually became considered scientific fact. Like many leaders after them, the Catholic Church found restrictions on ideas almost impossible to enforce, at least over the long term.

At this point, you might be wondering why I’ve started this post with a history 101 (one relating to religion at that). Well here it is. When I read this weekend’s article in the Scientific American about how the Egyptian government had systematically turned off the ISPs disabling the bulk of their country’s internet access, while millions of Egyptians continue to take to the streets demanding that their voices be heard, this story from my Year 9 history class suddenly came back to me. And I think this is why.

It seems to me that popular revolutions the world over have been slowed down by the efforts of the authorities to control and restrict the spread of information and means of communication. Slowed down. But not stopped. You cannot stop information, ideas and freedom of expression. Whether it takes days, weeks, months or even years, it seems that sharing ideas, developing our knowledge, gathering together, having our voices heard; these things are more than simply strange quirks of history but intrinsic aspects of human nature.

Egyptians march on Tahrir Square (Bloomberg)

We have an intrinsic need to learn. To develop our thinking. To improve our understanding. To express our ideas. And ultimately, to try to influence the world around us in a way that reflects these deeply held values. Freedom of opinion and expression, to receive and impart ideas and information are not arbitrarily enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because they’re ‘nice to have’. They’re human rights because they are an intrinsic part of who we are, and to stifle them is to stifle our humanity.

So, while I was pleased to hear Barack Obama state in his remarks on Friday night that the Egyptian government must reinstate internet and mobile phone access on the basis that these are human rights which “do so much to connect people in the 21st Century”, I do not believe this revolution is going to be stopped by the restrictions on internet access any more than the Reformation was held back by restrictions on the printing press. Online technologies will help the Egyptians get their story out and make their voices heard, I grant you, but without these technologies, the people finding other ways to make their point, to share their ideas and experiences, to demand a better future. Whether that means getting around the restrictions by using dial-up modems or ignoring new technologies altogether and camping in their hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Square until their government finally listens to them, the people are finding a way. Yes, it might take a little longer. But history tells us you can’t stop the tide.

Five of the Best: International Courses in Digital Culture

It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that the world is undergoing something of a digital revolution. So it makes sense that more and more people are devoting their time and money to trying to understand what impact that revolution in connectivity is having on us – as individuals, as communities, as nations and as a civilisation.

It therefore isn’t a great surprise that all over the world top universities are adding digital anthropology courses to their under-grad and post-grad curriculums. Here’s a quick overview of some of the programmes and schools throwing their intellectual and technological might at developing a deeper understanding of this emerging field.

1. Masters in Digital Anthropology, UCL

This MSc brings together three key components in the study of digital culture:

1. Skills training in digital technologies, including their own ‘Digital Lab’, from internet and digital film editing to e-curation and digital ethnography.

2. Anthropological theories of virtualism, materiality/immateriality and digitisation.

3. Understanding the consequences of digital culture through the ethnographic study of its social and regional impact.

Sounds pretty cool.

2. Master of Digital Communication and Culture, University of Sydney

What might be marginally cooler however is heading to Sydney’s top university to hang out on Bondi at the same as studying. It’ll cost you though – $25,000 to be exact which is no mean feat when the pound is struggling so.

While not as ‘heavy-weight’ as the UCL course – the course description certainly uses fewer words with four or more syllables – it is comprehensive, covering practical study in digital design to more theoretical approaches to the impact of technology on society. Plus, it’s in Sydney (have I mentioned that already?).

3. McLuhan Institute, University of Toronto

Even from their old (soon to be updated) website you can tell this is an institute of real calibre. It isn’t clear if they’re involved in the pedantry of Masters study, opting more for full on PhD research programmes in things like information ethics, ‘techno-psychology’ and ‘the era of the tag’.

Having met a few people who have done their PhDs here, it’s clear that it’s a place with a solid history in researching the impact of technology on the world – they have been so since the 60s, decades before the term ‘social media’ was even invented.

4. MIT, Boston, USA

Of course this would be no list at all without a mention for MIT and their Doctoral Program in History, Anthropology, Science, Technology and Society (or HASTS for short). While the site states ‘it is impossible for any program to cover the full range of problems raised by the multiple interactions of history, social studies, science, and technology‘, they seem to be giving it a fairly good go.

This one isn’t explicitly about digital technology – it covers everything from nuclear weapons to biomedicine, but they do run a course on the digital divide and it’s implications for development. Just up the road from Harvard, this is something of an intellectual technologist’s mecca.

5. Masters in Digital Culture, University of Jyvaskyla, Finland

Taught entirely in English, this programme focuses on various aspects of culture and its digitalization, placing special emphasis on the relationship between humans and technology.
The best bit about this one is that there seem to be no tuition fees, which will come in handy when living in a place as expensive as Finland. Plus it’s in a pretty small town, so you’ll certainly have the chance to focus on your studies.

TEDxManchester: On the hunt for new ideas…

Yesterday I was lucky enough to go along to TEDxManchester – an independently organised TED event where Manchester’s great and good joined together in BBC Philhamonic studio hall to hear and share some new ideas worth spreading. 

You can’t argue with the concept, and this being Europe’s largest TEDx event, it brought with it some good speakers and interesting discussions. But as I walked into the hall for the third session after 4 hours of talks to listen to Hugh Garry’s presentation on mobile filming and Paul Coulton’s presentation on online gaming (both of which were enjoyable), two things suddenly struck me, keeping me awake until the small hours last night as I mulled them over in my jumbled and exhausted head. I’m going to try and deal with the first of these thoughts in this blog post. It goes like this.

Bar Phil Griffin’s brilliant talk on urban spaces and architecture, virtually every live presentation at TEDxManchester had been in some way about technology and social media. While in part this is likely to be down to the fact this is the main interest area of most of the organisers and attendees (demonstrated by the fact that the event was primarily promoted through twitter), it does raise a question about whether the digital space has become the primary home for ideas and innovation.

After all, throughout the world entrepreneurs, academics, creatives and social commentators are flocking to digital and social channels as their main means of doing what they do. And as a result, we think that this is where the innovators live. The assumption is that if someone has something worth saying or doing, they’re probably saying or doing it online.

And more than that, the unbridled development of the internet has had and is having a profound effect on almost every area of our society, from how we manage our lives, businesses and relationships to what we expect from governments, corporations and media giants. You would struggle to talk about creativity, innovation and social change without mentioning the digital world, which is probably why the digital world featured so prominently in yesterday’s programme.

But it would be really, really dangerous for innovators to look only to the digital space for inspiration. The very basis of TED is that good ideas – ideas that inspire you and change the way you think – can and do come from anywhere. History, philosophy, politics, international development, economics, literature, nature, quantum physics, health research, psychology…it’s a massive world out there and it’s filled with people taking routes to try and understand it that are not purely digital. Or (shockingly!) are not in any way digital!  

Think about the people in your life and world that inspire you and make you think about things differently. Or even think of those people in the public eye who challenge the way you think about the world. For me, it’s been statesmen like Al Gore, writers like Liz Gilbert, explorers like David Attenborough, not to mention all the musicians, artists, campaigners and journalists out there. And while some of them might have a blog, their ideas are usually about people, nature and what it means to be human, and have absolutely nothing to do with technology.

‘So what?’, you might say. Let’s face it – a lot of the innovation happening out there is happening online. Does it matter if this is the main place we go to when seeking new ideas? Well…yes! If people in the digital space are only hearing ideas from the digital space, then the sphere of inspiration narrows and you end up with the same ideas churning and repeating, putting them in danger of becoming stale. Without external stimulus, progress and innovation grinds to a halt pretty quickly.

The beauty of TED is that it reaches into virtually every field and craft on the hunt for ideas, oiling the wheels of global innovation by giving you access to the minds and thoughts of people you would never ever come across otherwise. TEDx has a massive opportunity to take this philosophy and bring  it into our local towns and cities, and while yesterday was great, I really hope that a) it happens again next year and b) it throws the speaker net wider to bring us ideas and perspectives from fields we wouldn’t have thought to look in ourselves.