By Nicholas Jones
When the Democrats' eight candidates for US President took part in a televised debate answering questions posted on the video-sharing website YouTube, they contributed to an event which was a first for American political campaigning and which will inevitably be copied and developed further by broadcasters and political parties in the United Kingdom.
New forms of media are opening up new ways of participating in politics and Britain, with its rich history of robust electioneering, is well placed to take advantage of the rapid growth in the use of the web and what has already become a highly-innovative form of communication.
But while welcoming new opportunities to engage with a section of the electorate which has been notorious in the past for its low levels of voting, there is no certainty that future turnout will be higher, nor is there any guarantee that the world-wide web will provide fairer or more accessible forms of political reporting.
Although there is now a kaleidoscope of inter-active options, the established media companies are moving swiftly to develop and consolidate their grip on some of the most popular sites in the online market place. For example, few will perhaps suspect that it is the hidden power of advertising rather than relevance or suitability which influences the order in which sites are ranked and offered for view after what otherwise might seem to have been a mundane Google search.
Herein lies a potential danger for political parties, especially those which are having a hard time in opposition or struggling to be seen and heard. When it comes to politics, many of the big media conglomerates tend to have a clearly defined position well to the right of centre. In pursuing their commercial agendas, these companies will be anxious to retain any influence which they can exert on the government of the day and as a result they will inevitably try to find ways to shape and even dominate the opportunities for political debate which are opening up on the internet.
This power is already being exercised. Nearly three thousand video clips were posted on YouTube posing questions for the Democratic challengers, but it was the political staff of the broadcaster CNN who acted as moderators and who decided which of the thirty-second videos would be aired during the candidates' televised debate (24.7.2007).
Similarly when the Conservative Party leader David Cameron appeared on Channel Five (27.7.2007) answering questions which had been submitted by email, it was again journalists rather than the viewers themselves who selected the topics on which he was interrogated.
Perhaps not surprisingly those US bloggers who believe the internet should be a political free-for-all were annoyed that CNN's political team had been allowed to intervene and determine which of the YouTube clips should be broadcast.
Nonetheless it is only by seeking to maintain control over as much output as possible that media companies will be able to sell advertising space and hence protect their sources of revenue. Not unnaturally British newspaper groups, which are investing so heavily in websites, are determined to do all they can to guide anyone surfing the web towards one of their online news services.
Here help is at hand for the proprietors because the Press Complaints Commission has suggested that newspaper websites should carry a logo or kite mark to indicate that they are produced in accordance with the Commission's code of conduct and its rules on accuracy, privacy and newsgathering.
Assisting online readers to distinguish "reliable information" is regarded by the PCC's director, Tim Toulmin (The Independent, 23.7.2007) as a way of not only enhancing trust in newspaper websites but also of enabling media companies to capitalise on the benefits of self-regulation, which will be seen to be "increasingly valuable commercially".
When it comes to the development of online news service - and the task of protecting the commercial interests of the press proprietors rather than those of readers, viewers and listeners - the PCC speaks with authority because its system of self-regulation has been extended to include both the written content of newspaper websites and any video or audio material which might be shown.
Television and radio programming is surging ahead on the internet at such a breathtaking pace that the broadcasting regulator Ofcom has been left floundering in its wake, lacking a coherent strategy to cope with the effect these new services will have on established broadcasters and long-standing requirements like the need for political impartiality.
By handing over to the PCC the task of adjudicating complaints about the broadcasting content of newspaper websites, Ofcom came down firmly on the side of self regulation, an option which could have far reaching implications when it comes to the all-important task of trying to maintain political balance during election campaigns.
Unregulated output on newspaper websites will have none of the inbuilt safeguards which forbid politically-loaded reporting and programming on public service broadcasting. But here again Ofcom is in retreat. In its latest discussion paper, New News, Future News (26.6.2007), it argued that the requirement for due impartiality "may become less enforceable" because the expansion of digital channels and the internet meant there were now "very many more sources of news than ever before".
In a future of multiple of news sources, some of which are regulated for impartiality and others which are not, Ofcom considers that one option might be to amend the Communications Act to allow some television and radio channels to "offer partial news in the same way that newspapers and some websites do at present". If regulated and unregulated services ended up being offered side by side on the same platform and were available through the same reception equipment, then "trust may come to be more important than traditional concepts of impartiality".
Ofcom's thinking seems to be very much in line with that of the Press Complaints Commission and its belief that a logo or kite mark showing support for the Press code of practice could reinforce consumers' trust in the editorial standards of newspaper websites.
What seems to have been overlooked in Ofcom's desire for an easy life and the PCC's determination to protect the commercial interests of its paymasters, is any understanding of the possible consequences of allowing unregulated political broadcasting via the internet.
Rules which currently require television and radio stations to ensure a balance in air time between the parties would be undermined, thus eroding a system which has protected not only the opposition of the day but also guaranteed a voice for minority parties.
Websites of newspapers such as the Sun and the News of the World could become powerful propaganda weapons in the hands of a media proprietor like Rupert Murdoch and provide considerable electoral benefit to whichever political party his papers decide to support.
Out in the blogsphere the unanimous view seems to be that such is the diversity and competition between websites, bloggers et al, that come the next general election, political balance will sort itself out. Tim Toulmin of the PCC is similarly upbeat about the future prospects for journalists. Because opportunities to expand audiences are mushrooming, he believes the digital revolution, which was once considered a threat, now "looks more like the saviour of written journalism".
I am afraid we have heard it all before. In the early 1980s when the press switched from hot metal production to computerised technology, journalists were assured there were almost limitless opportunities for diversification and expansion. In the event newspaper ownership has been concentrated into ever fewer hands, especially in the provinces, where much of the local press is a shadow of what it once was.
So it is with the internet. On the one hand the opportunities for political expression seem limitless but on the other there are already signs that the big media groups are muscling in on the most popular sites; newspapers proprietors are out in front seeking to protect their interests in a crowded market place.
In the 18th century the price of books and periodicals fell dramatically because of the increased availability of printed material; newspapers multiplied in number; broadsheets took news from London to far away towns and cities; and there was a brisk trade in used books at Bartholomew Fair and other fairs up and down the country.
Such was the flood of information in printed form, true or false or even in pirated versions, that it prompted E.P. Thompson's observation that the "democracy of intellect was in danger of becoming a sort of Bartholomew Fair".
Every opinionated huckster has the same limitless opportunities today to tout their views but this freedom could be curtailed not only by the commercial power of media owners but also by the state which has made it an offence, for example, to hold online information which could be of use of terrorists or images of child pornography.
Also at risk is one of Britain's greatest democratic safeguards. News coverage of election campaigns is a classic British compromise: we have a free press and newspapers can be as unscrupulous as they like in promoting whichever party they choose but coverage on television and radio cannot be politically partisan.
Now with rapid media convergence, unregulated broadcasting on the internet could become the Trojan horse which erodes a system which has safeguarded not only the opposition of the day but also ensured at least some airtime for minority parties.
ukwatch.net on August 1, 2007, 2:06pmby Tim from