TO have lived away from Britain and then to return is to realise that Britain is an increasingly parochial country, and one in which what passes for media debate is often as trivial as it is deeply conservative. The British media establishment, the ‘commentariat’, by and large think and act the same. Sections of it become enraged when accepted ‘wisdom’ is challenged, for instance that any politician who moves from the mythical ‘centre ground’ does so at their peril, or when electorates fail to do what is expected, such as give David Cameron an overall majority or deprive David Miliband of his.
Ed Miliband, Labour’s new leader, has a bigger challenge than I perhaps he realises. It is somehow to avoid pandering to the Murdoch media in particular, while also harnessing the new media to bypass it altogether. Falling circulations, ever more shrill and fanciful denunciations, the cheapness of so much of the output , conspire to lessening the power of the old media, and about time too. Miliband’s victory is in essence a strike against the old media and political establishment, which is why they don’t like it. The new media, in all of its glorious, anarchic manifestation, offers him and his supporters a new way of reaching out to a younger generation that has little time for politics.
Miliband’s young campaigners harnessed social media in a big way. But for all of that his campaign websites lacked what some of the best multimedia sites now offer, such as the New York based ‘Big Think’ http://bigthink.com/ which now pulls in a million unique visitors a month. The new Labour leader says his new generation wants to do politics in a different way – and a good starting point is to treat the public intelligently, while allowing a thousand flowers to bloom, using debate, information, real argument, to in turn build up a viral movement for change. In this he can learn much from the Obama campaign, which transformed the fortunes of a moribund Democratic Party through virtual town hall meetings and through powerful internet campaign tools such as MoveOn.Org. British understanding and use of new media is still some way behind that of the United States.
And the Government’s decision to try and open up opportunities for the development of local multimedia news channels for both digital and broadband, also provides an opportunity for Ed Miliband and his supporters to reach out to many people who feel their local newspapers – if they still have them – aren’t up to the job anymore, or who believe that regional – and national – news, simply don’t cover the stories and issues that concern them.
If any of this is to work for the new Labour leader, he will rapidly have to tear up some of the New Labour spin manuals, and the clumsy agit prop that came with them. Communicating effectively through new media, entails being open, discursive and open to dissent and ideas – something the party has not been good at in recent years.