Social media sets the political agenda

Social media sets the political agenda

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May 2015 is shaping up to be the UK’s first connected general election. Torin Douglas reports.

If anyone doubts, in this digital, social-media age, that television will play a key role in the general election campaign, they need only look at the rows over the leaders' TV debates.

"Televised election debate plans in disarray" was The Daily Telegraph's splash headline over the leak of new proposals drawn up by the broadcasters, after David Cameron refused to take part if the Greens were excluded.

BBC Radio 4's Today also led on the plans for the debates, which would involve the leaders of seven parties, regardless of whether any party leader refused to take part.

With three months to go until polling day, the line-up of the TV debates remains as uncertain as the election result itself.

But what's not in doubt is that this year's media coverage will be very different to that of the 2010 campaign, as broadcasters respond to the impact of social media and YouTube channels, the fragmentation of the party system and the decline in voting among 18- to 24-year-olds.

"There's a really different dynamic, now, because of social media – the speed at which things happen will be much quicker," says Jason Mills, Head of Digital at ITV News. "We'll be monitoring many more places this time – official sources and unofficial – and our aim is to add clarity to the debate and sort the wheat from the chaff."

"The big difference is that it's not about three or four parties any more," says Jonathan Levy, Director of Newsgathering at Sky News.

Large media organisations rarely give the young enough attention in our coverage, and that must change

"We'll no longer be following just three leaders – we need to find out what Nigel Farage and Natalie Bennett are doing, and what's happening in Scotland, which could have an impact on the outcome. And, of course, the swingometer is broken."

"Our challenge is to make the election issues relevant to young people – and the key thing is keeping politicians out of it," argues Louisa Compton, Editor of BBC Radio 1's Newsbeat.

She's been asked to spearhead the BBC's drive to digital-first, using video, mobile and online to reach a 15- to 24-year-old audience that is switching off radios.

While most broadcasters are keeping their election plans under wraps (the strict impartiality rules for the election period don't take effect until 30 March), some initiatives can already be seen, as programmes strive to attract younger audiences and prevent viewer boredom creeping in.

Newsnight kicked off the year by unveiling its "election marathon" with presenter Emily Maitlis ("a jogger's delight in a high-vis pink padded body­warmer, turquoise running shorts and matching trainers," panted The Guardian).

We saw her conducting interviews – somewhat breathlessly – with Ipsos Mori's Ben Page and the Watford Running Sisters at the start of her election odyssey from "coastal paths to industrial estates and everything in between".Read more television magazine

Young voters are a key target for all broadcasters. Head of Sky News John Ryley spelled out the challenge in an Observer article headed: "It's vital to get young voters into the polling booth".

"The turnout of 18- to 24-year-olds at general elections has been declining since 1997," he wrote. "In 2010, only 44% of registered under-24-year-olds voted, compared with an average 73% of those over 45."

Ryley said the media must take some of the blame. "We, and other large media organisations, rarely give the young enough attention in our coverage, and that must change... Young people are not only alienated by politicians but by the way politics is covered – the lobby system and the focus on Westminster, rather than issues that matter."

So Sky News has launched Stand Up Be Counted in partnership with the Media Trust and youth organisations "to turn up the volume of what young people are saying and ensure the establishment is listening".

Using the tag @SkySUBC, young people are posting videos, articles and comments and sharing them across Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Kik. The project feeds into another Sky initiative – In the Margins, focusing on 150 key marginal seats – and has been nominated for an RTS Television Journalism award.

"We've all grappled with how to integrate social media into our TV coverage," says Levy. "All our journalists are on Twitter and so are the politicians, so it will play a big part in the election.

"And Facebook is going to be much bigger for us than in the past – it's relatively unexplored territory for journalism and we're going to put a lot more video up there."

ITV News has teamed up with @BiteTheBallot, which describes itself on Twitter as "a party-neutral movement on a mission to empower young voters". Before Christmas, the group ran #LeadersLive debates with four of the party leaders, streamed on YouTube.

Questioned by young "influencers", Labour leader Ed Miliband pledged to give the vote to 16-year-olds in all parts of the UK.

Meanwhile, the BBC is building a panel of 200 18- to 24-year-olds from across the UK, called Generation 2015, based on the Generation 2014 initiative run by BBC Scotland in the Scottish referendum.

Those chosen could find themselves appearing on The One Show, Radio 1's Newsbeat, Newsnight and other outlets.

The centrepiece of Generation 2015 will be three big audience debates on Radio 1, with TV coverage on the BBC News Channel and BBC Three, linked to Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube. The panel will help to choose the debate topics.

"The received wisdom is that young people aren't interested in news and politics," says Compton, "but since I came to Newsbeat last year (from Radio 5 Live), I've learned that's not true. In Scotland, young people were massively engaged in the referendum – it was about their future.

"So our coverage will be all about the audience, getting them talking to each other about what matters to them."

At last year's Radio Festival, Compton acknowledged that the BBC was "playing catch-up" with Vice Media, widely seen as the home of serious content that appeals to the so-called "millennials" (those born between 1980 and 2000, aged 16 to 35).

Casting a voteVice's 43-minute documentary The Islamic State has been watched (or part-watched) more than 15 million times on YouTube (see Vice News Comes of Age).

So how is Vice News planning to cover the UK general election? Its Head of News Programmes, Europe, is Kevin Sutcliffe, a former Editor of Dispatches on Channel 4.

He says he is relishing not being shackled by the "extraordinarily formal theatre, and artificial nature, of traditional TV election coverage".

Sutcliffe says that Vice News and the website Vice.com don't have to provide wall-to-wall election coverage and so won't "slavishly follow" the agenda of others, too often dictated by the parties' photo-opportunities.

"We have a much more fluid and flexible approach and I'll be able to commission some breakthrough films and opinion pieces on subject areas that are resonant with our audience," he says.

Sutcliffe adds: "This is going to be a very important election with big, Europe-wide issues and we're an international channel. We're still pondering how best to tackle it, but we'll certainly have a different voice and perspective."

So how far will things change? "People said the last election would be the online election, but it wasn't," says Sky's Jonathan Levy.

He continues: "TV dominated the campaign because of the leadership debates. This time, digital will be on a par with television."

That means viewers and voters will have to do more to seek out election material, instead of having it handed down to them by broadcasters and newspapers.

This may excite the politically engaged. The danger is that millions of people may simply not be bothered.