Scholarly article on topic 'The Media and the 2010 Campaign: the Television Election?'

The Media and the 2010 Campaign: the Television Election? Academic research paper on "Media and communications"

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Academic research paper on topic "The Media and the 2010 Campaign: the Television Election?"

Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 63 No. 4, 2010, 802-817

The Media and the 2010 Campaign: the Television




The 2010 election was one of the most competitive campaigns of recent decades. o

The first televised leaders' debates along with the rise of online social networking SL

led to renewed speculation about the potential influence of the media in cam- e

paigns. By contrast the press appeared to revert to pre mid-1990s form with strong ff

support for the Conservatives and personal attacks on their opponents. This article |

concentrates on three main areas: the influence of the leaders debates on the cam- t

paign and outcome of the election; whether and how press endorsements made /

much difference; and finally, the hype surrounding the notion of an internet elec- .

tion and whether e-campaigning made any difference to the campaign. f

IT IS something of a cliche to say that the media play a major role in ^

modern general elections but this was particularly the case during the e

2010 campaign. From the broadcasting perspective, interest focused on what influence the first televised leaders debates might have on the for- f

tunes of the parties and the campaign generally—how far would this o

result in a further presidentialisation of campaigning and would any ^

particular party/leader benefit? In relation to the oldest news k

medium—the press—interest centred on whether endorsement of the |

Conservatives by the Sun would make any difference and, more gener- §

ally, whether newspapers were of declining significance in a multi- y

media age? At the outset of the election, much speculation centred on the Internet, notably how prominent and important would social net- 1

working tools, such as Twitter and Facebook, be in the course of the 5

campaign. Commentators drew on the American experience, where Obama's campaign was seen to have extensively deployed new technologies to great effect, to ask whether the same techniques would be used here.

In the event, it was television and the leaders' debates that dominated the media agenda and became the centrepiece of the campaign. The significant rise in popularity of Nick Clegg following the first debate but the subsequent failure of the Liberal Democrats to turn this into votes and seats raises questions about how much difference the debates really made to the final outcome. Similarly, television also

Parliamentary Affairs # The Author [2010]. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Hansard Society; all rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: doi:10.1093/pa/gsq024

provided the other stand out moment of the campaign—the so-called 'Duffygate' incident—with Gordon Brown being recorded making derogatory remarks about a voter he had just met. Again, whilst this created a media storm, how much difference it really made is open to question.

Cleggmania: the impact of the leaders' debates Contrary to pre-election hype this election campaign turned out to be quite traditional in many respects. Despite falling audiences the established news media still continued to inform most voters. Television, in particular, contributed much because, for the first time, the three main leaders appeared together in prime time 'Prime Ministerial Debates'. Each edition attracted a mass audience, a rarity for any current affairs programming. The ITV debate opened the series and was seen by 9.68 million, placing it second only to the channel's top rated Britain's Got Talent and just above EastEnders and Coronation Street that week.1 : The by-now lack of novelty together with the non-terrestrial platform a contributed to only 2.21 m seeing the second instalment on Sky News f

together with an additional 1.39 m watching the simultaneous broad- j cast on BBC News 24. The viewing figure recovered to 7.43 m for the Si-final encounter on BBC1. Cumulatively these represented huge, unpre- S

cedented audiences for general election-related broadcasting of any g kind; during this period the most popular television news bulletin t

attracted 5.56 m viewers. i

The debates were a major innovation for a British general election S

although they are commonplace in other democracies. Previous incum- S

bents and/or challengers had rejected the format for fear of providing S their opponents with added momentum and copious negotiations prior t to past elections had failed to assuage these doubts. There were still D

extensive discussions prior to this campaign over the debates' format Of and 76 rules for the contests agreed. The 2010 general election was to O

be different because it would be fought by three politicians experien- U

cing their first campaign as leader and who each calculated they could 1 gain something from the debates. Gordon Brown had been installed 22

unopposed as Labour leader in June 2007 and shortly after Labour's 2

poll ratings began to plummet. Given this decline was partly caused by the economic downturn, the debates provided Brown with an ideal opportunity to justify and explain his response to the ensuing financial crisis. From the outset the Prime Minister attempted to position himself as the leader of most substance when, during the first encounter, he acknowledged 'if it is all about style and PR, then count me out' in an obvious criticism of his principal opponent David Cameron (if not predecessor Tony Blair). Cameron had been elected to lead the Conservatives in 2005 partly because of his presentational skills and, despite his party's longstanding lead in the polls, he also agreed to the debates because he evidently relished the opportunity to confront the

less polished Prime Minister. For Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg the calculation was even more straightforward: the debates guaranteed him further exposure.

The debates had long been resisted by various politicians because they claimed such events were better suited to a presidential rather than parliamentary system. The decision to hold them has long-term ramifications because if judged solely in terms of their success in attracting sizeable audiences it seems very likely that they will play a significant role in future campaigns.2 That they happened this time was in part due to the threat by Sky to invite the three major leaders to jointly participate in a live programme and then broadcast whichever of them turned up on the night. The more immediate short-term impact of the programmes was to turn the focus of this campaign ever more on the characters of the main leaders. This extended to their families and most especially their partners. Gordon Brown had initially got to know his wife Sarah when she was working as a public relations ■§

adviser to Labour and she subsequently played a major role in helping to 'humanise' him by accompanying him before and during the campaign and giving interviews to attest to his personal qualities. Similarly Samantha Cameron featured prominently, talking openly about her husband to ITV journalist Sir Trevor MacDonald and frequently accompanying him during the campaign.3 Private Eye satirised the appearance of the 'leaders' wives' in recognition that there had been something of a departure from previous elections in which partners had been seen but remained largely silent.4 Nick Clegg's partner Miriam Gonzalez made a virtue of continuing to work during the campaign although she too did give interviews. In the early stages of the election Clegg was more likely to be seen with a political partner, his deputy Vince Cable. Cable's image was emblazoned alongside his leader's on the Liberal Democrat battlebus in a move that underlined his perceived importance to the party going into the campaign although his presence markedly declined once the race got underway.

David Cameron had entered the campaign claiming he was the change candidate. Consequently the success of the rival opposition leader in the first debate proved especially unsettling for the Conservatives. Following the election several influential Tory commentators including donor and Vice-Chairman Lord Ashcroft and blogger Tim Montgomerie were particularly critical of the leadership for having agreed to participate in an untried format when the party had comfortably been ahead in the polls.5 During the initial debate both of Clegg's opponents had sought to find common ground with him so as to appear reasonable but also as a precursor to negotiations in a hung parliament scenario. Brown's repeated utterance of the phrase 'I agree with Nick' was subsequently adopted by the Liberal Democrats as a campaign slogan. Some media pundits appeared surprised by what many now termed 'Cleggmania' although veteran commentator Robert

Harris correctly anticipated heightened exposure during the campaign would enhance the Liberal Democrat appeal. Clegg's impact was further magnified because of his hitherto relatively low profile. Paddy Ashdown had supported his successor's leadership bid because of his 'extraordinary ability to communicate' but, having won the position, Clegg appeared overshadowed by fellow party MPs such as the ubiquitous Lembit Opik and Vince Cable, the economist whose forensic yet accessible analysis of the 2008 crisis generated considerable media interest.6 Consequently Clegg's lack of media visibility together with his presentational skill conspired to transform his public persona during and after the first debate. This was compounded by a format that afforded him equal billing despite the chance of him becoming Prime Minister being remote.

Elections have long favoured the third party and their forebears because of the broadcasters' desire to ensure greater parity between the rival contenders' share of coverage during the campaign period.7 This was particularly the case in a close race with a strong likelihood of a hung parliament result in which the Liberal Democrats would be 'kingmakers'. But Clegg's performance in the debates added to this and the tenor of much of his party's coverage perceptibly changed and was no longer perfunctory as was often the case in past campaigns. This was growing recognition of the seriousness of the Liberal Democrats' bid for at least a share of power. An eve of first debate poll from Ipsos MORI poll reported 53% of voters expected Cameron to do best as opposed to 20% for Brown and 12% for Clegg. The outcome was, however, very different. Populus reported 61% of their respondents agreeing that Clegg had won as opposed to 21% for Cameron and 17% for Brown. The subsequent debates provided less dramatic postmortems with the Conservative leader vying with the Liberal Democrat for the opinion poll accolade of 'winner' in instant polls of dubious reliability with ITV actually mistakenly broadcasting the raw data from one survey provided to the station by its market researchers. Overall, the serious and exhaustive follow-up analysis, which featured assorted politicians, journalists and spin-doctors, promoted the 'horse race' election-as-game aspect of the campaign coverage. The BBC reinforced this by devoting considerable airtime to reporting the so-called 'worms' produced on screen when a tiny unrepresentative sample of three dozen undecided people turned electronic dials in positive/negative response to the leaders during each of the live debates. Rather than rely on these kinds of gimmicks, a series of ITV post-debate specials hosted by Jonathan Dimbleby proved more informative because they enabled floating voters to speak for themselves.8

It is questionable how and whether the debates contributed to the final election outcome. Following Clegg's opening performance media speculation focused on whether it might provide the catalyst for his party to overtake Labour. And although this was reflected in some of

7 Thic I

the mid-election polls, this apparent surge in support failed to materialise at the ballot box. This is perhaps not surprising given research on the US experience indicates that earlier debates tend to have the most impact and their influence is less on voting behaviour and more in terms of helping to inform the electorate about issues, candidates and their policies.9 Arguably the key influence of the debates in the 2010 campaign was to transform the narrative of the campaign which had hitherto been preoccupied as to whether the Conservatives would win an outright majority. Clegg challenged this by highlighting his rival candidacy to those many undecided voters seeking change in government. This in turn encouraged a bifurcation in the right's message be this from the official Conservative campaign or its print media supporters.

Yes we Cam: the revival of the Tory press

In contrast to the three elections Tony Blair won, Labour faced a more hostile press going into this campaign. The circulation of its only reliable supporter, the Mirror, was slight when compared with that of the pro-Conservative newspapers. The latter group had been inconsistent in their support for Cameron but they proved willing allies during the actual campaign. The best selling Sun had formally abandoned its Labour allegiance during the party's 2009 conference, but had become a vocal critic of Gordon Brown's government sometime before.10 The redtop's change of allegiance saw it rejoin the Tory press alongside the Mail, Express and Telegraph and together these titles launched robust attacks on Brown's character and his record (see Table 1). The other defectors to the Conservatives, The Times and Financial Times, were far more circumspect in their endorsement although their loss was a psychological blow to Labour. Interestingly the Star, despite its populist attacks on welfare 'scroungers', immigrants and such like, did not realign itself with the Conservatives, preferring to maintain its officially non-partisan stance.

1. Editorial declarations and circulations (in millions) of the national newspapers1

2010 Circulation 2005 Circulation

The Guardian Moderate Lib Dem 0.29 Weak Labour 0.34

The Independent Moderate Lib Dem 0.19 Moderate Lib Dem 0.23

The Times Weak Conservative 0.51 Weak Labour 0.65

The Telegraph Moderate Conservative 0.68 Strong Conservative 0.87

The Financial Times Very Weak Conservative 0.39 Very Weak Labour 0.38

The Daily Express Very Strong Conservative 0.67 Strong Conservative 0.87

The Daily Mail Strong Conservative 2.10 Strong Conservative 2.30

The Sun Strong Conservative 3.00 Weak Labour 3.26

The Mirror/Record Strong Labour 1.57 Strong Labour 2.29

The Star No Preference 0.82 No Preference 0.85

Perhaps inevitably Cleggmania proved a defining moment for the press in this campaign. Some of the subsequent reaction was positive. The Independent once again backed the Liberal Democrats and this was followed by similar pledges of support from the Guardian and its Sunday sister the Observer. Their typically qualified endorsements provided a stark contrast to the more negative attention grabbing responses in the Tory press. On the eve of the second debate there was a concerted newspaper attack on the Liberal Democrat leader and his policies. The Daily Telegraph published a story suggesting Clegg had improperly received payments from assorted party donors.12 He denied the claims which appeared designed to compromise his integrity through reviving memories of the MPs' expenses controversy. The Telegraph had been the paper that first broke the scandal during the preceding parliament. Clegg's personal expenses briefly surfaced in the second televised debate when Sky's moderator Adam Boulton controversially raised the matter in an apparent contravention of the exten- •§ sive rules governing the format.

On the same day the Telegraph revelations appeared, the Express bitterly attacked the Liberal Democrat's 'crazy' immigration policy whilst the previous day the Sun had mocked Clegg over his pre-debate preparations.13 But the most audacious front page was the Mail's 'Clegg's Nazi slur on Britain', a reference to a 2002 Guardian article in which the then MEP had suggested the Germans had come to terms with the Second World War in a way the British had not.14 Clegg rebuffed the coverage by joking that his public standing had gone from the level of 'Churchill to Nazi' within a week. The scale and severity of the press attacks even led to Labour's Chair of Electoral Strategy Peter Mandelson denouncing 'disgusting and classic smears... straight out of the Tory party', he ascribed to Conservative director of communications Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor, and the 'Tory party dirty tricks manual'.15

The decline of newspaper sales implies press influence, such as it ever was, has diminished from the 1980s when the debate over their impact was at its most intense. However, some politicians still subscribe to the thesis that reporting can and does make a difference during elections. In the speech conceding her defeat Conservative Joanne Cash claimed: 'in Westminster North the media played an incredibly powerful role, and we have to beg the question what their role is going to be going forward—are they going to tell the truth or are they going to trash people and lie about their families?'16 This had followed allegations relating to Cash's apparently fractious relationship with local activists published by the Mail and other newspapers who were critical of her and other so-called 'A-List' candidates whose selection had in part come about following an attempt by the leadership to bring greater diversity to the parliamentary Conservative party in terms of gender, ethnicity and sexuality. Some of those promoted in this way were subsequently dismissed by right-wing media commentators as

so-called 'Cameron cuties' following their appearances in photo-shoots for glossy magazines such as Vanity Fair and Grazia, the latter of which also featured rival slates of glamorous representatives from the other major parties.17

Unlike broadcasters, the primary restrictions on what is permissible for a newspaper to publish relate to the general laws covering libel. At election times, the press routinely exercise their right to pontificate on the choices available and hence the interest in gauging whether or not this still matters. Most shifts in readership opinion between 2005 and 2010 were broadly in keeping with the 5% national 'swing' from Conservative to Labour (Table 2). Some of this may have been linked to declining sales or else demographic trends relating to changing gender, age, regional and class profiles of the differing titles' consumers. Nevertheless it is intriguing to note that there was a decisive 'swing' of 13.5% from Labour to Conservatives amongst Sun readers and within this evidence of a loss of support from the government to both of the main opposition parties. This marked shift may have been related to similarly disproportional changes of allegiance within some of those groups traditionally associated with this newspaper, notably the skilled working class, males of various ages and those living in certain regions. However, these demographic factors alone may not account for the scale of such change. Intriguingly, this was a campaign in which the Sun revived the kind of strongly partisan stance it had not adopted since 1992, the election in which it had last endorsed the Conservatives. During the intervening years the paper's support for Blair had been uncharacteristically nuanced and more about the leader than his party: it had been a prominent part of the 'Tony' press.18 2010 saw something of a revival in the more strident Tory press of the kind last seen in the early 1990s. One particular aspect of this was the Sun's negative portrayal of Gordon Brown. It was partly in response to such coverage that the Prime Minister decided to take his message directly to the public in an attempt to reconnect with the electorate. This strategy would present its own risks.

Ér D k

2. Readership allegiances of newspapers 2010 (and 2005)1

Lab Cons Lib Dem Swing (Lab-Con)

Result 29 (35) 36 (32) 23 (22) 5

The Guardian 46 (43) 9(7) 37 (41) 3.5 (Lib Dem-Lab)

The Independent 32 (34) 14 (13) 44 (44) 1.5

The Times 22 (27) 49 (38) 24 (26) 8

The Telegraph 7(13) 70 (65) 18 (17) 5.5

The Star 35 (54) 21 (22) 20 (15) 10

The Daily Express 19 (28) 53 (48) 18 (18) 7

The Daily Mail 16 (22) 59 (57) 16 (14) 4

The Sun 28 (45) 43 (33) 18 (12) 13.5

The Mirror 59 (67) 16 (11) 17 (17) 6.5

One day... in Rochdale: 'Duffygate' and other awkward moments

Human interest stories have long dominated news coverage and this reflects the belief of various theorists from Graham Wallas to Drew Westen, writing a century apart, that mass politics is guided by emotion and not just reason.2 Consequently more abstract topics can appear marginal to the election and/or media agendas. In response to this Channel 4 devoted a whole discussion to the issues it felt were being sidelined despite the extensive campaign coverage. The programme was particularly interested in the widely acknowledged debt o problem afflicting the nation's economy.21 And whilst others, notably l the Institute for Fiscal Studies, attempted to press leaders on the issue, d the scale and detail of the problem appeared beyond the comprehen- d f sion or failed to attract the attention it arguably merited from many om media outlets. This in part reflected the evasiveness of many politicians htt as to the level of the debt problem and how they proposed to tackle it. ://p A perception that the leaders were trying to avoid public scrutiny a.o over the budgetary crisis, not to mention other issues, led to several for apparently spontaneous interventions by assorted citizens. Some of 0 them were reminiscent of Sharron Storrer who memorably confronted rna Tony Blair over the state of the NHS during the 2001 election. The o media proved more than receptive to covering events of this kind g/ because when voters were normally granted access to politicians there t U was a suspicion the former were party activists masquerading as ordin- niv ary members of the public. The cordon around politicians was symbo- rsit lised in the way numerous leaders' campaign speeches were y of accompanied by a backdrop made up of often youthful supporters pro- No viding telegenic support to the visitor. The controlled nature of these rth kinds of event led one protestor to confront Gordon Brown during a meeting in the North East because the Prime Minister 'needs to see real § electors, not just hand-picked people'.22 § Brown's campaign tour of the country was periodically interrupted Jy by citizens with varied grievances such as a disillusioned publican, a ¡3 parent angry about the lack of school places and an anti-nuclear acti- 1 vist who invaded the stage during the leader's final major speech. 5 Cameron too faced close questioning by members of the public including an anxious father concerned about his disabled son's educational provision. But there was nothing to match Brown's most memorable and excruciating meeting with Gillian Duffy on what had started as a routine campaign visit to Rochdale. The encounter with the disillusioned Labour supporting Mrs Duffy had ended warmly. But when Brown returned to the privacy of his car having failed to return his wireless microphone to the Sky News team following him his subsequent conversation with an aide was recorded and broadcast without either of them being aware that they were still being monitored.

has suggested that the internet would be a giant autonomous force in the general election campaign and probably hold even more sway than in the US presidential campaign... likening the Internet to an army of the night that moves on its own and no one will be able to control its influence.27

Just three weeks later the Internet was being comprehensively rubbished, or at least talked down, as commentators discovered, seemingly to their surprise, that television was more influential and that the online stuff was merely a side show. Amongst others, Iain Dale, the leading Conservative blogger declared 'far from being an important player the internet has become all but an irrelevance'. 8 Similarly, Pat Kane in the Glasgow Herald summed up many column inches:

despite all the cyber predictions, from YouTube this to Twitter that, 2010 has become not the internet election but the Television election (and maybe even the Newspaper Election).29

Brown's dismissal of 'that woman' with her 'bigoted' views dominated subsequent news bulletins with even the most populist Channel 5 programme devoting 10 minutes to the gaffe despite having largely avoided trailing the election as a lead item.

A recurrent feature of the 'Duffygate' coverage was Brown's seemingly despairing, head in hands, reaction to hearing the recorded conversation as a guest on BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine. Mrs Duffy's shocked reaction was also broadcast together with her objection to being labelled 'that woman'. Brown's campaign plans were effectively derailed as he opted to visit Mrs Duffy at her home, which was now besieged by reporters, to personally apologise for his comments. The voter eventually broke her silence in a Mail on Sunday interview in which she confirmed her intention to abstain in the election.23 The gaffe was damaging to Brown but could have been worse as was noted by one of his most notable media critics Andrew Rawnsley of the Observer. Rawnsley, who featured prominently in the extensive journalistic analysis of Duffygate (which was ■§ also known as 'Bigotgate'), argued the incident was comparatively mild a in contrast to some of the examples of the Prime Minister's allegedly dys- f functional behaviour discussed in his recent book.24 jj

The first internet election... (again) r

Just like the previous three elections, 2010 was once again dubbed the t

first Internet election or the Internet election.25 In the early stages of 3

the campaign, journalists and some political figures were falling over r

themselves to talk up the potential of the Internet. The Daily Telegraph jy

excitedly proclaimed that Facebook and Twitter would have unprece- 8,

dented impact and stated that 'many are predicting... that David o

Cameron will be swept into No. 10 on the crest of a digital wave as D

victor in Britain's first Internet election'.26 The Guardian reported that 0

former Labour chief strategist Lord Gould: 0

Perhaps the first question to ask is what was meant by 'the Internet election' and why such excitement, (fake or otherwise), was generated in the first place. The hype prior to the election, predicting the Internet election combined several elements.

• The Internet would potentially dominate the news agenda and the parties would be unable to control the campaign agenda. Stories in the mainstream media would emerge from the web or blogosphere. Furthermore, in the age of the mobile phone camera there was an expectation that gaffes might be prominent amongst such stories.

• The parties and candidates would use social media and other tools extensively in their campaigns, with the result that the style of campaigning would potentially be more open, interactive and decentralised.

• As a consequence of some combination of the first two factors, the p

Internet would somehow then prove decisive in shifting voters' p

opinions or mobilising support for the parties, especially amongst c

the traditionally hard to reach younger voters. d

The reasons for such excitement stemmed, as they had in 2005, from a

a mixture of political and technological factors. Many commentators 0

again looked enthusiastically to the US and focused on the apparent /

success of Obama's online campaign in terms of fundraising and u

mobilisation of supporters.30 v

The expectation of a significant role for the Internet was also built t

on the growth and increasing appeal of the technology itself. Since the f

previous campaign, the Internet's reach had extended to a mass audi- o

ence of around 70% of the British public. The political blogosphere, §

which was in its infancy in 2005, had become a central fixture of the k

Westminster landscape. Blog sites such as Conservative Home, Iain §

Dale, Labour List, Guido Fawkes and Lib Dem Voice, whilst not reach- §

ing mass audience, have become increasingly influential in terms of y internal party debates.31 What excited most attention, however, was the explosion of social media tools, notably Facebook and Twitter. Just prior to the election it was estimated that there were around 25 million Facebook accounts in the UK. The growth of public interest in online social networking was also mirrored by UK politicians, by summer 2009, around one-third of MPs had a Facebook site and over 10% had a Twitter account.32

Internet and mainstream media agendas

In the event, stories broken from the Internet did not dominate the mainstream media, although there were a handful of online gaffes that made the news. Labour's so-called 'Twitter Tsar' Kerry McCarthy found herself under police investigation after she revealed the results of

postal votes prior to polling day on her Twitter feed. Similarly, an obscure Labour candidate Stuart MacLennan was 'sacked' following obscene postings on his Twitter account that were subsequently published in newspapers, but these were the exceptions. If anything, the new media tended to respond reactively to the old media. As a result, the Internet formed the backdrop to mainstream media coverage in several ways. It tended to act as a partisan echo chamber to events on television or in the newspapers. The key partisan blogs did little to rock the party boat and acted more as cheerleaders and mobilisers for their respective parties. In fact, in many respects, leading bloggers such as Iain Dale and Tim Montgomerie (Conservative Home) have become part of the mainstream media anyway through regular media appearances.

The net also provided broadcasters, journalists and party campaigners with instant feedback on the campaign. During, and immediately following, the leadership debates, Twitter, social network sites and ■§

online polls were used by journalists to gauge public opinion and then shape the subsequent debate about who had won. Interestingly, the parties, through prominent figures such as Eric Pickles and Alastair Campbell, tried to influence the Twitter agenda during the debates although arguably to little effect. Twitter, even if its direct reach was limited, proved largely uncontrollable.

Finally, debate on the Internet also acted to counter and sometimes ridicule newspaper coverage. When the tabloids launched their attack on Nick Clegg it was met by a wave of ironic responses from social networkers who launched the satirical nickcleggsfault hashtag on Twitter where people blamed Clegg for all the world's ills. Whilst the effect of such activities might be limited, the Internet could be seen as chipping away at the mainstream media as the authoritative voice on the campaign. Yet, perhaps the main message of from the election, in terms of the relationship between the Internet and traditional media, is that it makes little sense any more to separate them. They are now fundamentally intertwined. 1


Much of the focus of media coverage of the e-campaign centred on the interactivity and mobilisation possibilities of web 2.0 technology (blogs and social network sites). At a superficial level, the main parties did utilise a full range e-campaign tools and had already created official YouTube channels and Facebook pages, well before the election. Parties also adopted some of the features of Obama's e-campaign toolkit most notably through the Conservatives MyCon site, which was a clear nod to Obama's MyBO web portal. However, most critics argued that whilst the technology was being deployed, there was still a high degree of risk adversity surrounding their e-campaigns. Parties were accused of failing to engage in a dialogue with voters and acting

largely in old-fashioned broadcast mode merely transmitting their messages top-down to the electorate.33 Yet, as Coleman pointed out after the 2001 election, campaigns are rarely the time for engaging in conversation since the main objective is to communicate the message clearly to voters.34

Whilst the interest of academics and commentators has often been on the public face of the web campaign, arguably, some of the more significant developments are the private face of Internet-based campaigning. Two elements of this more hidden type of campaigning are worth noting. Firstly, the use of the Internet to mobilise and inform activists and core supporters via closed areas. Labour's operation allowed activists to communicate with one another, discuss issues, promote groups and events and was integrated with social network tools. Secondly, Internet-based technology was used to gather information about voters, build databases and improve direct mail and marketing tactics. The Conservatives, in keeping with their marketing-led ■§ strategy, used a software system that theoretically allowed candidates to identify key groups of voters within their constituency merely by typing in local postcodes. The system also allowed candidates to feedback locally gathered information about voter concerns to party headquarters. The idea then was that the party could deliver a segmented marketing approach with specifically tailored direct mail messages to groups of voters in local constituencies.35 However, how successful this was is more questionable. There were several reports of the system not working properly and not being deployed early enough to iron-out glitches.

Although the growth of marketing approaches suggests a continuation of trends in the professionalisation of campaigns since the 1980s, others have noted that the Internet possibly challenges the top-down, centralised command and control model of the TV era.36 In particular, it has been suggested that the Internet might erode party campaign control or at least fragment campaign messages. New media have been seen as providing more opportunities for individual candidates to personalise their message. Web 2.0 tools, in particular, also allow activists and interested supporters more scope to create their own campaigns and network with one another without having to go through party HQ or even become members of party.37 Certainly, early evidence suggests that in 2010 there was again a significant increase in the number of candidates with an online presence. In England, amongst six main parties contesting elections (Cons, Lab, Lib Dem, UKIP, BNP and Greens) some 47% of candidates had a web presence (with nearly two-thirds of the big three parties having a website). Strikingly, in marginal English seats, a sizeable minority of party candidates used the full range of web 2.0 tools—(42% had Facebook sites, 35% ran blogs, 34% had Twitter accounts and a third also used YouTube). How far this truly represents a departure

Voter engagement online

Compared to 2005, the 2010 campaign appears to have seen a significant growth in the number of people looking for election information online. Post-election survey data suggests that the numbers of voters looking for information online more than doubled to around a third of the population.41 This increase was seen across a range of destinations and the Internet was the fastest growing source of information especially amongst the younger age cohorts, although, it is still considerably less popular and less trusted than the traditional media. Whilst mainstream media websites were still the most prominent, the official sites of parties/candidates saw even more significant rises. Around 15% of voters claimed to have visited them up from just 3 or 4% in 2005. It seems plausible to suggest that some of the increase

from centralised campaigns is more questionable, since the parties have countered some of the individualising possibilities by providing templated websites and content and around 16% of candidate websites followed such a template format (over a fifth amongst the big three parties).38

One area where parties did lose control of the message was in terms of their campaign posters. Nearly all the traditional campaign posters were heavily spoofed and satirised online. Within minutes of being launched, posters would be subverted by altering the images or changing the slogans. These would then be spread virally across the web. One of the most successful spoof poster sites was the site that allowed people to modify a series of Conservative posters. The site gained over a quarter of million unique visitors in its first six weeks and some of the spoof posters ended up in several newspapers. This continual online defacing of posters had led Alastair Campbell, amongst others, to declare that the campaign poster was ■§

dead as a means of communicating the party message.39 Whilst this maybe an exaggeration, there's no doubt that party slogans and messages are more open to challenge though the Internet. Nor was it simply official posters that were challenged; unofficial videos and social network groups also offered alternative means of involvement in the campaign. The YouTube video using Pulp's hit, 'Common People', satirising David Cameron's privileged background was viewed by more people than many of the official campaign videos. Similarly, one unofficial Facebook group 'We got Rage Against the Machine to #1, we can get the Lib Dems into office!' ended up with twice as many supporters as the party had members (over 150,000 by the end of the campaign).40 On the eve of polling day Facebook users declaring their affinity to the major political parties numbered: Conservatives 83,987, Liberal Democrats 83,441 and, trailing in third place, Labour 38,034. In small ways, therefore, the Internet is beginning to break down the boundaries between official and unofficial campaigns.

may be as a result of the closer election race and the TV leader debates. Traffic data from the company Hitwise indicates, not surprisingly, that searches for election information and party website visits saw significant spikes of activity following television leaders debates especially for the Liberal Democrats.42 How far the party campaigns reached beyond the usual suspects is more difficult to judge though. Around 5% of voters signed up to register as official supporters though only around 3% could remember being contacted directly by the parties online (compared with about 47% offline).

Across the board, the younger age cohorts, most notably the 18-24 years old group, were significantly more likely to have engaged with online information. Over two-thirds of 18-24 year olds claimed to have accessed MSM sites and 43% visited official party sites. The youngest age cohort was also strikingly much more likely to have used social networking sites and online video material—16% suggested they had joined or started an election-related group on a social network site ■§ and over a quarter claimed to have viewed unofficial video material. Of course, the problem from the party perspective is that the voters most likely to access election information online are also the least likely age category to vote. Nevertheless, the early data suggests that there is a shift towards online information and communication amongst younger voters that is likely to become more prominent the next election.

It is worth remembering though that simply looking at crude numbers of people accessing information online alone may actually understate the influence and reach of the net. Previous studies have detected the possibility of a classic indirect effects model, where the net activates activists to go campaign offline and reach out to those who are less interested in politics.43 Moreover, whilst the parties' online reach may be somewhat limited, other organisations campaigning in the election claimed they had used web tools to good effect. The Hope not Hate campaign, seeking to mobilise anti-BNP support in areas such as Dagenham and Barking, suggested that web tools, especially email alerts, were extremely useful in attracting volunteers to take action on the ground.44


Despite the hype surrounding the idea of the Internet election, it was the traditional platform of broadcasting that dominated the campaign. The leadership debates, whilst not necessarily influencing the outcome of the election, certainly helped shape the narrative of the campaign by elevating the status of the Liberal Democrat leader. The outburst of so-called Cleggmania triggered a strong response from Conservative supporting newspapers. How successful this reporting was is more questionable, since the long-term decline in press sales has arguably seen a diminution of their collective hold on the news not to mention

the British psyche. This was revealed in the almost mocking reaction of other media commentators when there was a simultaneous but hardly spontaneous burst of criticism levelled at Nick Clegg by the Tory press. Their belated enthusiasm for attacking opponents of the Conservatives was something of a departure from their previously studied indifference towards the third party.

The idea that it was going to be the Internet election was always flawed. Despite its increasing ubiquity, in political terms, the Internet is still a medium for partisan elites and activists. Equally, expecting American campaign experiences to be repeated here ignores the realities of a very different political and media environment. Nevertheless, whilst it may not have been the Internet election, there are signs that the online world is beginning to become routinised into campaigns and intertwined with mainstream media. For younger voters especially the Internet is simply part of everyday life. Overall, the 2010 general election may well turn out to be rather unique in media terms. The novelty ■§ factor of the leadership debates and the emergence of social media are unlikely to be viewed as quite so new next time around.

Dominic Wring Loughborough University, UK

Stephen Ward Salford University, UK jf

1 Figures from Broadcasting Audience Research Board. There were also other debates featuring various ° senior frontbench politicians debating their particular issues mainly on BBC during the election. f There was also a Chancellors' debate on Channel 4 just prior to the formal campaign. D

2 The 2010 Labour leadership election has been in part framed by considerations as to how the five ° contenders might fare in a live debate situation. f

3 Trevor MacDonald meets David Cameron, ITV, 15 March 2010. f

4 Private Eye, 13 April 2010. e


6 Guardian 18 October 2007. Opik lost his seat in this election, a shock result in part attributed to his personal celebrity.

7 J. Blumler, and D. McQuail, Television in Politics, Faber & Faber, 1968.

8 Campaign 2010 with Jonathan Dimbleby, ITV 15 April 2010.

9 The authors are very grateful to fellow contributor Jane Green for guidance on the impact of debates and for suggesting the following review of the literature, W.L. Beniot et al., A Meta-analysis of the Effects of Viewing US Presidential Debates, Communication Monographs, 70, 4, 2003, 335-50.

10 Sun, 30 September 2009.

11 The partisanships of the given newspapers are determined by the statement declaring their allegiance normally published on or near polling day. For more on this see David Deacon and Dominic Wring, 'Patterns of Press Partisanship in the 2010 General Election', British Politics, forthcoming.

12 Daily Telegraph 22 April 2010.

13 Daily Express, 22 April 2010 and Sun, 21 April 2010.

14 Daily Mail, 22 April 2010.

15 Guardian, 23 April 2010.

16, 7 May 2010.

17 Daily Mail, 14 April 2010.

18 D. Deacon and D. Wring, 'Partisan Dealignment and the British Press' in J. Bartle et al. (eds), Political Communications: the British General Election of 2001, Frank Cass, 2002.

19 Figures from Ipsos Mori—the authors are grateful to Helen Coombs for supplying them.

20 G. Wallas, Human Nature in Politics, Constable, 1908; D. Westen, The Political Brain, Public Affairs, 2007.

21 Election Uncovered, Channel 4, 2 May 2010.

22 Daily Telegraph, 2 May 2010.

23 Mail on Sunday, 2 May 2010.

24 A. Rawnsley, The End of the Party, Viking, 2010. Interestingly despite 'Duffygate' Labour still managed to win the highly marginal Rochdale seat.

25 S.J. Ward and R.K. Gibson (1998) 'The First Internet Election? UK Political Parties and Campaigning in Cyberspace' in I. Crewe, B. Gosschalk and J. Bartle (eds), Political Communications: How Labour Won the 1997 General Election. Frank Cass, pp. 93-112; S. Coleman (ed.) Cyberspace Odyssey: Elections in the Age of the Internet, Hansard Society, 2001; S.J. Ward, 'The Internet and 2005 Election: Virtually Irrelevant?' in A. Geddes and J. Tonge (eds), The Nation Decides: The 2005 General Election. Basingstoke, 2005, pp. 188-206.

26 Daily Telegraph, 7 April 2010.

27 Guardian, 1 April 2010.

28 Guardian, 27 April 2010.

29 Glasgow Herald, 2 May 2010.

30 A.A. Haynes and B. Pitts, 'Making an Impression: New Media in the 2008 Presidential Nomination p Campaigns', PS: Political Science & Politics, 42, 2009, 53-58. ^

31 M. Francoli and S.J. Ward, '21st Century Soapboxes? MPs and their Blogs' Information Polity, 13, . 2008, 21-39; R.K. Gibson, F. Greffet and S.J. Ward (2009) 'Party Organisational Change and ICTs: ' The Growth of a Virtual Grassroots?' Paper presented at the 2009 Annual meeting of the American r Political Science Association, Toronto. O

32 A. Williamson, L. Miller and F. Fallon, Behind the Digital Campaign: An Exploration of the Use, ^ Impact and Regulation of Digital Campaigning, Hansard Society, 2010. S

33 Ibid. b

34 S. Coleman, 'Online Campaigning', Parliamentary Affairs, 54, 2001, 679-88. —35 J. Crabtree, 'David Cameron's battle to connect', Wired Magazine, March 2010. —

36 P. Norris, A Virtuous Circle, Cambridge University Press, 2000. n

37 R.K. Gibson and S.J. Ward (forthcoming), 'Political Organizations and Online Campaigning' in e H.A. Semetko and M. Scammell (eds), Sage Handbook of Political Communication, Sage. i

38 The authors would like to thank Roslynd Southern at the University of Manchester for supplying the — data regarding candidates. —

39 The Times, 22 February 2010. O

40 Thanks to Mark Pack for drawing our attention to this. —

41 The authors would like to thank Rachel Gibson and Martja Cantjoch at the University of Manchester D for supplying the data in this section. The survey conducted by the polling organisation BRMB was a O face-to-face survey in the week following the election. -

42 For details see -

43 P. Norris and J. Curtice,'Getting the Message Out: A Two-step Model of the Role of the Internet in l Campaign Communication Flows During the 2005 British General Election', The Journal of 1 Information Technology and Politics, 4, 2008, 3-13; S. Vissers, 'From Preaching to the Converted to -— Preaching through the Converted', paper presented to ECPR Joint Research Workshops, Lisbon, 0

14-19 April 2009. 5

44 See M. McGregor, 'People Not Technology Are What Wins Elections',, 23 April 2010.