The Hyperlocal Jeremy Paxmans are out there; we just need to find them

I wrote this article for the Journalism Foundation in March 2012. Searching for it this morning, so I could reference it, I discovered that the Journalism Foundation, and thus its website, is now defunct. So, to make sure it stays out there, I am reproducing it here:

Browsing Twitter a couple of weeks ago, I came across a tweet which, I think, was from one of the many sessions at the South by South West technology conference in Austin, Texas. I’ve lost track of it now, but the gist of it was that politics is an activity which appeals to an ever decreasing proportion of the population, and that its participants seem to have little interest in changing their approaches to appeal to more people.

We can all point to the many ways in which life has changed in recent years which make the traditional ways of doing things less relevant. And it is a story familiar in other walks of life, that the people at the top cling to the old methods, while everyone else finds something else to do which is more interesting and relevant to their lifestyles. Thus, small bands of politics junkies continue their debates in panelled rooms, while the rest of the world gets on with using ever simpler and more effective means of sharing and communicating with each other. It is tempting to see politics as yet another “industry” gradually being killed off by new technology and changing demographics.

But politics is too important for that. It is, after all, however imperfect the systems, the way we do things. It’s the expression of our collective will. Looking over the broad span of history, politicians, or whatever those who hold the reins of power, have been called, have generally been drawn from a small elite. Social progress in the 20th Century went a long way towards changing this. Is it now going too far to suggest that this progress might be reversed as the rest of the population distances itself from the way politicians do things?

One of the big ironies of modern politics is that the politicians who bother to go out on their tried and trusted mission to knock on the nation’s doors are probably dragging people away from their screens and mobile devices. And those people have at their fingertips the means of keeping in touch with political issues in a far more informed way than a rushed doorstep conversation. Whether they choose to use them for that purpose is another issue entirely.

Of course, there are lots of initiatives attempting to address this divide. I’ve been involved with some myself. And there are some politicians who are great at using social media, although all too many see it as just another channel to broadcast their messages to a wider audience. Effective use of social media by politicians is still too much of a minority activity.

Just the other day, I was watching a live video stream of a council meeting, during which some councillors berated their colleagues for tweeting during the meeting, claiming this meant they weren’t paying attention to the debate. Now, those of us who are regular social media users know that it is possible to become quite adept at multi-tasking; listening to debates and translating their key points into tweets, but this can be a difficult skill to master, and it can seem an impossibility to those not versed in it. But this incident is a very good indication of the tension between the old and the new way of doing things; and it further shows how politicians are developing their own channels to communicate with the public, without the mediation of journalists and traditional media.

Live-streaming of council meetings is an interesting case in point. A number of local authorities are now video streaming meetings, thus making their content available on a much wider basis than to those prepared and able to attend in the public gallery or read the minutes. A few councils have tried using free streaming platforms, with mixed results, largely because they haven’t taken account of the in-stream advertising that some free platforms deploy, and these can attract negative reactions. More common, amongst the minority of councils streaming meetings, is a managed system deploying a number of fixed, remotely controlled, cameras in the Council Chamber, which produces a TV-like experience for the viewer.

It is undeniable that using live-streaming to open up democratic processes is a good thing. But I would argue there are some fundamental difficulties with the way it is being approached by most local authorities.

The first issue is the cost. There is a natural element of risk-aversity in a lot of the public sector, for very good reasons. At the recent LocalGovCamp North West event, I ran a session on live-streaming council meetings. One of the key messages which came out of this session was that many councillors are worried about experimental systems which they think might fail to present them in a favourable light. But the reliance on expensive systems is acting as a block on other authorities moving into providing their own live streams. In my opinion, people form their own opinions about their elected representatives based on many other factors than the quality of the internet stream they might view them on. And I have witnessed councillors misbehaving on good quality webstreams. I think risk-aversity, coupled with lack of in-house skills required to make different systems work, is holding back councils which don’t have the budget to buy in expensive systems. And, in the current fiscal climate, that is most of them.

The second issue about live-streaming meetings is the focus on the Council Chamber. This is particularly inevitable when costly video equipment has been installed in the Chamber. But, not every decision is taken there, nor does every debate happen in the Chamber. So, the question is: what exactly is it that we are opening up? Yes, we get to see the Full Council meetings, which, after all, are the ultimate governing body, responsible for signing off the decisions of all sub-committees and other groups. And some councils stream other meetings which take place in the Council Chamber too, including Cabinet meetings. But, a lot of the most lively, and best informed, debates take place away from the main Chamber, and, again, the investment in Council Chamber equipment and lack of preparedness to experiment, mean that other debates don’t get a wider audience. In fact, as many of these meetings take place in venues with minimal facilities for public attendance, a lot of these discussions are unwitnessed by anyone not directly involved. I think this is a democratic deficit, as many of the real issues get proper scrutiny in small rooms.

But I think the most dangerous assumption in all this is the idea that simply “putting it out there” is sufficient. I’ve no idea what the average viewing figures are for live streams of council meetings, but I suspect they are not high, and the numbers of people sticking with them all the way through must be significantly lower still. I’m very interested in this stuff, but I don’t find much of it gripping viewing. People are interested in the issues that directly and tangibly affect them. And they are also, whether we like it or not, interested in personalities. Most people don’t know much about the personalities in local government. They probably don’t even know who their local councillor is.

So, what I don’t see happening, which I think it pretty vital, is any move to popularise local political content. The live streams from council meetings are the local equivalent of the BBC Parliament Channel. They’re put out there through some sense of obligation, but not many people really watch them. What we really need are the local equivalents of Question Time, News Night, the Daily Politics, and Election Night Special. These are the programmes that package politics, make it more entertaining, and bring it to a wider audience. But no one is producing local versions at the moment, or ever has. It could be that a solution is riding over the horizon in the shape of the Local TV stations being promoted by the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. But, the jury is out as to whether Local TV in the form envisaged by Government can be made to work. It feels like a very old model, requiring expensive kit, staff and studio spaces. And its catchment areas are based on TV transmitter footprints, rather than any communities or geographies that make sense to people. On the other hand, there are lots of hyperlocal bloggers, news gatherers, and citizen journalists out there who are only too willing to act as bridges between politicians, institutions, and the public. The internet is where large numbers of people get their information these days, and it offers cost-effective channels for communication between all parties involved in the local political process.

Pits ‘n’ Pots in Stoke-on-Trent has been holding its local elected representatives to account for a number of years now, as is well documented elsewhere on this site. Other hyperlocal websites have been doing the same. There are lots of examples where politicians and officials have felt threatened by these processes. Indeed, a number of local sites and initiatives have emerged as a response to a perceived lack of openness on the part of their local authority. But this relationship need not be antagonistic. In many localities it should be possible for local authorities, politicians, and citizen journalists to find new ways of engaging the public in democratic processes. The hyperlocal Jeremy Paxmans and David Dimblebys are out there. They just need encouragement and a small amount of resource to make local politics sexy.