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12 March 2010

The internet, the telly and the coming election

When it comes to politics, newspapers and television still trump the net.

By Jon Bernstein

In the mid-1990s people started to think and write about the impact the internet was having on all our lives, and to help them they appropriated an ugly old word: disintermediation. That’s “cutting out the middleman” to you and me.

From holidays to car insurance and, yes, politics, the internet would let A do business with B without C. So no more insurance brokers or travel agents adding their 10 per cent, and no more mass media distorting the political message.

Things are never quite that simple. For example, aggregators that compare the cost of cover for a Ford Focus or two weeks in a Tuscan villa make a living by charging a premium for prominent “sponsored” placings. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s far from disintermediation in its purest sense.

Meanwhile, TV and newspapers — despite falling audiences and apparently broken business models — still trump the internet in terms of impact and reach. In other words, most people will get most of their election coverage in mediated form between now and 6 May. And we’re not just talking the ten million who claim never to have accessed the internet.

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All of which means that when you ask, as the BCS did in an ultimately fascinating panel debate yesterday, “Will the internet determine the outcome of the general election?” the obvious response is: “No, don’t be so stupid.” (In reality, the internet will have an impact on the general election in how it helps parties mobilise their activists and co-ordinate their volunteers, but that’s for another time.)

Take the recent “airbrushed” Cameron poster campaign. This was the blogosphere at its most creative and acerbic, led by Clifford Singer’s excellent MyDavidCameron.com.

“I think it’s probable that the fun we’ve had with those Cameron posters online has caused the Tories to stop them,” claimed Derek Wyatt, the outgoing MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey.

Jag Singh, a former new media adviser to Hillary Clinton, wasn’t so sure. Look at the numbers, he said. “[They] show 100,000 visited the site and — if you dig further down — they show that people only came to the site one and a half times each on average. So, you’d come to the site, see the poster and never come back. That’s not really the kind of digital engagement that parties or campaigns want to aim for.”

Yet those posters did have an impact. Why? Because they were picked up by old media, with their millions of readers and viewers. (It’s worth looking at Singer’s latest analysis of traffic to his site to see the role celebrity tweeters played in spreading the word, helping it reach the attention of the mainstream media.)

Of course, this has happened before, notably with the infamous Alan Duncan “rations” rant last summer: filmed and posted online, picked up by the Evening Standard one lunchtime, leading the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News that evening.

In the words of Paul Staines, aka Guido Fawkes: “You leverage new media into old media.”

And sometimes it works the other way around. Take Carol Vorderman’s appearance on Question Time last week. It was car-crash TV and people were looking for a place to talk about it. Enter the blogosphere. Neatly completing the circle, the newspapers then picked up the online buzz.

So rather than treat the internet as a tool for disintermediation, perhaps it’s just another medium feeding off, and providing sustenance to, the rest.

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