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Smashing the lens

"Well, that's what happens when you have three Weetabix for your breakfast." So said the Sky News anchor as the camera cut back to her after Adam Boulton's interview with the Prime Minister at the Labour party conference last month. Angry that Boulton was "filtering" his precious policy initiatives through the lens of the Sun's vote of no confidence, Gordon Brown had given his interlocutor a decidedly cold sign-off. The clip exists in many forms online, including one that shows Brown flouncing off after the shot has cut back to the studio. Each has attracted tens of thousands of viewers.

But aren't we all a little sick of it? Even before they've had their Weetabix, Today programme listeners have digested several rounds of linguistic shadow-boxing as presenters try to force the statements made by their Westminster guests into this week's media agenda. It would seem that the benchmark of a successful interview is that its subject is left flailing around on political ground his handlers have briefed him to avoid - no matter how inconsequential that ground be to the real issue. The growing trend for a BBC editor to come on after the 8am politics interview to tell us all what just happened surely indicates a widening communication gap.

The day of David Cameron's speech to the Conservative party conference, Newsnight supplied an eye-watering interpretive line-up. After an authored report, two Westminster heavies weighed in, followed by the programme's own panel of experts. In total, less than four minutes of the actual speech were played.

Online, these orchestrated analytical spectaculars are far less popular than the raw footage they dissect. A YouTube search for each party leader shows that the most popular clips are of the odd gaffe (Brown's flounce, Cameron's Twitter "twat-gate"), or footage from parliament and conference. Like middle-class mothers, it seems, we prefer the raw ingredients of our politics to the pre-packaged, sugar-and-spite-laced alternative.

It is fashionable to condemn internet culture for shortening our attention spans and deepening our prejudices. But is it possible that the increased availability of political speeches, online and unmediated, might be good for our democracy? Parliamentarians, take note: there may not be anyone in the galleries, but that doesn't mean we're not watching you.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.