Through the Looking Glass
The General Election May 7th Cambridge Guildhall
6. From Old Media to New Media
We captured the changes in working practices for council staff and the candidates and the Hustings organisers who were now all using social media, Twitter and Facebook to communicate their work.
We also spoke to national lobby journalists and local journalists and a technology blogger too.
Elizabeth Rigby, Chair of the Parliamentary Press Lobby, and Deputy Political Editor of the FT and Patrick Wintour, Political Editor of the Guardian, talked to us about the transition from getting scoops by personal contacts to spotting stories on Twitter. (April 30th) Patrick had a front page Guardian lead on the day we interviewed him on proposed welfare cuts and Elizabeth spoke of how the days of "unfettered" access for political correspondents to the party leaders was now confined to the history books even if you paid to go on the Battle Buses. Patrick has about 38000 followers on Twitter and Elizabeth about 18000.
Elizabeth told us: "This is a very tight election and both sides are very nervous that any gaffe or mistake can swing the polls, so they are running a very, very tight contained and controlled Election. They don't want journalists causing trouble and pulling people off message. They really want to avoid the sort of blow ups that walkabouts can create. They have intense media scrutiny, Twitter, Facebook, BuzzFeed, you have the national newspapers all with their online operations, you have 24 hour news channels. With so many media outlets it is very difficult to control the message, so all the political parties have responded by trying to control access."
"Stories come on Twitter and disappear within a few hours. As journalists we try and step back and give our readers an intelligent distilled version of the 'noise'. It is important to step back from Twitter and the daily thrust of a campaign, and convey to our readers the big themes and say these are the things that matter and that you need to know."
Patrick told us: "Most leaders travel by train or helicopter, the battle buses are left over from a different era that they pretend to be involved with. And the same thing with rallies, David Cameron on an industrial estate rally recently was basically him in a corner of an industrial estate with broadly about 50 people there. The photos on TV looked as if a large number of people were there, but they are all artificial."
"I have about 38 or 39000 followers on Twitter. I was forced to Tweet by the paper at a G8 Summit in London and I was really cross about it. I thought this was a ridiculous format to try and explain in the number of characters you had (140) what was going on at the G8, which was very complicated with the collapse of the World economy, and I didn't tweet for many years afterwards."
"My front page lead today about the Coalitions proposed £8billion of welfare cuts, came about because somebody I know trusted me, and told me. Twitter is a fantastic source of stories but if you don't have friendships and loyalties as a political journalist you are not going to get big stories really."
Listen to the interviews:-
or download the MP3 file (file size: 15.8MB)
We spoke at regular intervals to John Vale, (April 23rd April, 27th ), and Chris Elliott (May 5th) political editors and reporters on the local paper the Cambridge Evening News both in their offices and at Hustings events.
After attending one Hustings event and chairing another John told us: "It is very important that people know where their candidates stand on a wide range of issues. People need to know the full range of issues from what the candidates will do about potholes to the big humanitarian crisis facing us, such as the Palestinian situation. The Conservative and UKIP candidates were invited and didn't turn up to that one today on Palestine, so people need to know that too."
"What I try and do with Twitter is not to give any sort of interpretation but to give an account of what was said. The candidates go within two hours from talking about how you solve dyslexia to how you solve the crisis of the Middle East."
"Twitter has 140 characters and we very rarely go beyond 600 in a story in the paper. It is only possible to capture 10 or 20 per cent of the debate, so it's not an easy task, what I find interesting might not be interesting to others, but I do my best. There is a lot of knowledge to get on the page."
Listen to the interview:-
or download the MP3 file (file size: 7.35MB)
When we met Chris in the Boardroom of the CEN two days before the General Election he was getting his troops in order. He said: "For the first time ever we are not going to produce a newspaper on the morning after the Election because the results don't come through until 4 or 5 O'clock. From a production point of view we are going to do it online."
"We are going to have Twitter, a live blog on our website, separate stories will be posted direct from the count via email and our laptops straight onto the CEN website. It is a revolution compared to previous elections. Social media is a lot more up and running now than it was in 2010."
"We have 9 counts and we are going to have reporters at five of them, picking up details from the other four. They will be emailing their material to another member of staff who will be at home, not even in the office, who will feed them into a live blog. Twitter is the fastest way to get the results out there, it will be on our individual Twitter accounts and then onto our website."
"We now have a 30 or 40 thousand readership and on a daily basis we get 50 to 60 thousands hits on our website. It is a big change from the days when I started in journalism 30 years ago when we would sell 60 or 70 thousand papers a night, the website isn't up to that speed yet but it is getting there."
"My first General Election was in 1979, when Thatcher came to power, we then had three terms of Tony Blair, then John Major, and I have covered all of these things through the prism of Cambridge."
"In the office we are monitoring Twitter all the time in case something pops up that is of interest to us. The national papers can be political and support a particular party but we have to be factual. We have ensured that all the parties have had a fair say and we are pleased about that and now we have to wait and see what happens on Thursday."
Listen to the interview:-
or download the MP3 file (file size: 16.6MB)
On the night of the count in the Guildhall on May 7th a well-known technology blogger, Phil Rogers, who used to be a Liberal Democrat supporter was interviewed just after midnight.
Phil said he has resigned from the LD Party over its policy on tuition fees in 2010. He said: "I have a blog about Cambridge politics and it has some data visualisation, I am a former political activist interested in political issues and a Software developer."
"It is 12.45, at the verification stage with the ballot boxes still but from the Gallery in the Guildhall you can see if people are cheerful or not cheerful. It is going to be evident from up here in the gallery - those empty racks that stack up later - what the result is from the numbers of pieces of paper, but we are not able to communicate that until it has been prepared and announced officially. Social media is a useful adjunct to a campaign but the election campaigns are fought on the doorstep and with pieces of paper and I don’t see that changing."
"I tend to delve into the data to see what the data is telling us and what we can find out from it. I am active on Twitter there is quite a Twitter community around Cambridge politics, the 'Guildhall Groupies', as we are called. Mainstream media do a great job in Cambridge but I am really writing for not such a broad audience but for those who are engaged in what the issues are and want to look at them in a bit more detail, such as other political activists. I do try and keep people amused as well as informed."
Listen to the interview:-
or download the MP3 file (file size: 7.10MB)
Dedication: This Eight part documentary is dedicated to my friends Simon Sedgwick-Jell (Green Party), and Ann Stockford (Labour Party). Both were well known political campaigners in Cambridge. They may support different parties but each supported and participated in democracy and befriended me. My respect goes to the candidates of all the political parties and their teams of supporters.